The Short Version: George Smiley is called upon by an old friend to investigate a strange letter. When the writer of the letter turns up murdered – which is just what the letter proposed was going to happen, Smiley finds himself headed to a British boarding school called Carne. There, he attempts to unravel the truth of just who murdered Stella Rode and why.
The Review: What a strange alternate future we could’ve seen had John le Carré decided to send George Smiley into ‘proper’ mysteries instead of dropping him back into the Circus? Would le Carré be as well-regarded? Would Smiley still be a figure in the proverbial consciousness?
It’s clear that le Carré thought twice about his detour into straight mystery – his follow-up novel was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and saw Smiley firmly planted back inside the intelligence community. So what, then, to think of this novel? How should it be handled in the context of the rest of the Smiley series?
Or perhaps one shouldn’t look at it in any context at all other than the context the novel itself provides: this is a cracking mystery in the English vein. A boarding school, a hint of the supernatural (debunked, of course, but hovering around the edges), simmering class resentment, the Pinter-esque unspoken communications that the English are so damn good at… it’s all here and it’s all done in splendid fashion. I still just can’t get round the fact that you could do a find-and-replace to change “Smiley” to any old name and the novel would exist just as comfortably, a simply fine whodunit.
Smiley is called up by an old war-time comrade, a woman who had served as secretary to one of his friends. She asks him to investigate something because, well, he’s the only one she can think to call. It’s a little tenuous, one must admit… but Smiley, seemingly a little bored (it seems as though his trip at the end of the previous novel to collect his erstwhile wife did not end successfully…?), decides to go and have a look about. There are no Russians here, no East German sympathizers – just a bunch of hoity-toity English boarding school types. You know exactly what I mean (and so does Justin Evans – he mined exactly this well [albeit with more supernaturalness] for The White Devil with great success). The unspoken pecking order, calcified into rock-hard structure, shaken by a ‘modern’ woman. Although the woman in question seems less ‘modern’ and more bat-shit crazy. Anyway. The scenes of dining and the niceties that must therein be observed are fascinating to me. The little asides that le Carré gets away with, like about how Carne (the ficticious boarding school) calls a term “Half” instead of “Term” because it sounds more erudite…. they’re both funny and scary. They’re exactly what an outsider (i.e. anyone who didn’t go to a British boarding school) wants to hear when being given a little peek into the society they will never understand.
The mystery itself is unraveled in somewhat plodding fashion, even by Smiley’s standards – and there’s a third act death that feels almost unnecessary (although it does blow the whole case wide open) – but it’s still a cracking good one. Woman murdered, her husband apparently above suspicion, a gypsy woman who turns up with jewels and garmets the murdered woman had been wearing… but of course it can’t be that simple because something doesn’t fit! What about the letter?! And so, right there, you’re pretty much in it. And you let it take you along for the ride – because while le Carré’s talents are perhaps more suited to the slow burn of espionage, the line between that and murder-mystery is quite blurry (just ask Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle).
Most interestingly, perhaps, is the fact that this sheds a little more light on Smiley than I was expecting. By dropping him in a world where no one knows who he is, he’s at liberty to not only be himself… but to hear about himself. His (ex-)wife apparently was born and raised nearby and so the school all know the name. And everytime someone says “oh, yes, Smiley, that name’s familiar…”, they go off about how Lady Ann married some strange Smiley fellow and how it fell apart and Smiley… just… takes it. It’s a fascinating point regarding his character and that stoicism, shown here in such a personal light, is what makes Smiley who he is. The Smiley of later novels would not exist without the Smiley shown here and so, for that reason, this novel is worth the entry into the Smiley series.
Rating: 3 out of 5. All of that having been said… there’s not much to say otherwise. It’s written well, it’s got the classic le Carré tone, it even gives us a bit of backstory on Smiley – but as a novel it’s nothing more than ho-hum. We know the novelist can do better, but even a mediocre entry in his canon is (judging from this one) still worth the read in order to say you’ve read it / in order to have the whole story. But it won’t sway anyone in either direction about the spymaster or his great creation.