The Short Version: Some film that would confirm the Soviets placing missiles near the West German border has gone missing during a routine handoff and the courier has wound up dead. It was a simple car accident – but the Department doesn’t know that and so they seize the opportunity to one-up their more talented brethren in the Circus and so they begin to train an old agent to go under in East Germany. But the spy game isn’t about trying to show off – it’s about doing good work – and when push comes to shove…
The Review: The beginning of the book, the introduction by le Carré, makes an interesting point: he thinks this book might’ve been better received had he removed Smiley and the Circus from it altogether, simply made it another spy story and left it at that. In this sense, I feel the same way about this novel as I did about A Murder of Quality and even, to a lesser extent, The Honourable Schoolboy: fine novels but Smiley’s appearances feel somewhat out of place. Here, at least, Smiley is a peripheral character – he appears only every once and a while, including at the very end to wrap things up. In this sense, he becomes a figure somewhat larger than the story and in many ways he overshadows it. We know the other adventures he’s been involved in – so why are we wasting time with other people’s misadventures where he just drops in?
But that does a slight disservice to this particular novel. le Carré’s intro also makes the point that he wanted to show exactly how messed up the Service had become – how petty bureaucracy was just as stark of a reality as the bang-up spy stuff that is so much more exciting to read about. And that’s really the lesson of this book: that bureaucracy can really muck things up. Leclerc and his team at the Department are jealous of the success that Control and the Circus have had – and so they run around behind their back, obfuscating and bending the truth as need be, to make this job their own… even though they aren’t actually an operational department anymore. There’s a short scene where Control and Smiley are discussing what they’ve learned of the Department’s plan and Control basically asks what the hell they thought they were doing and Smiley basically just shrugs – it’s quite a telling moment in terms of how little the Circus cared and how ballsy the Department thought they were being.
The novel is surprisingly plodding at times, despite its short page count and modestly exciting plotline. I think this is, perhaps, because most of the characters (Leiser and Avery excluded) are boorish and annoying. The entire staff of the Department are irritating gits and their failure – at the cost, presumably, of Leiser’s life – is all the more infuriating for it. It’s like watching Congress today: it should be so simple to get things done for the good of the masses and yet all we see are petty quarrels breaking out between tiny men with big ambitions and even bigger egos. In this sense, le Carré succeeds in smashing fashion. Where he doesn’t succeed is in truly making the story sing – a lot of the bureaucratic jive is sort of muddled and without much haste to it, without much excitement or entertainment value. Making it dry could’ve been the point… but I wouldn’t have minded a bit less of Leiser’s dreary training regimen. I’m just saying.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Another smart, observant spy novel from the master – and this time, the real important takeaway is the scathing critique of inter-departmental squabbling. Here, it costs a man his life – and provides in the doing a lesson for those who would rather try and one-up their compatriots instead of working together to achieve a meaningful and worthwhile goal.