What Are We Reading: Smiley’s People by John Le Carre

Posted on April 30, 2012 by in What Are We Reading?

This week, Elizabeth Galloway explores the first adult novel in our What Are We Reading feature: Smiley’s People by John Le Carre.

Smileys People

“A spy, like a writer, lives outside the mainstream population. He steals his experience through bribes and reconstructs it.”
John le Carré


I’ve been on a le Carré binge since watching the recent film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That novel was the first of le Carré’s Karla trilogy; next came The Honourable Schoolboy, and finally Smiley’s People in 1979. By then, Roger Moore was well into his stint as the on-screen James Bond. Contrast the Martini-quaffing action man with le Carré’s hero, George Smiley:

 “His heavy lids had almost closed, and what remained visible of his eyes was clouded by the thick lenses of his spectacles. He was sitting upright but his head had fallen forward till his plump chins rested on his chest.”

Unprepossessing, maybe, but that’s Smiley’s strength; people overlook him, and at their peril. At the start of Smiley’s People he’s called out of retirement when one of his former agents – an elderly Estonian known as General Vladimir – is killed by aMoscow marksman. The new leaders of the Secret Service have blundered: they rejected the agent’s attempts to make contact, believing him to be a relic from a bygone era – much as they see Smiley himself. How wrong they are. Smiley is tasked with simply brushing the incident under the carpet, but his instincts tell him to start probing. The unravelling threads lead to Karla – Soviet spymaster and Smiley’s nemesis.

This isn’t a world of tuxedos, fast cars and glamorous women. In a plot as dense as the fug of 1970s cigarettes, international crises are played out in drab parlours and on rainy pavements. Smiley’s hunt for Karla is gritty, tense and utterly compelling, right up to the final, nail-biting showdown. Enjoy!

Leave a Reply