Book twenty-two: The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carre

The second part of Le Carre's Smiley vs Karla trilogy opens with The Circus in disarray. The unmasking of the mole, Gerald, has left the service in a desperate state. Before they were compromised and nobody knew it, now their credibility is torn away. Smiley is now in charge of British Intelligence but, without funds, agents or political backing, is reduced to taking "back-bearings" - analysing the cases Gerald was most determined to close down on the assumption that these would lead back to Karla and Moscow Centre.

In this way Smiley and his team find a 'gold seam' - a series of payments of Russian money into a bank account in Hong Kong. He sends Jerry Westerby, journalist, would-be novelist, occasional spy and the honourable schoolboy of the title, to investigate.

What follows is a more typical spy novel than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There are murders, explosions, faked deaths and beautiful women. Perhaps that's why I found this a little less satisfying than its predecessor.

Westerby is a less interesting character than Smiley and suffers in comparison. Le Carre is on record as saying the book would have worked better without Smiley in it at all and he may be right.

Westerby is shallower and stupider than his boss. This means he makes mistakes and takes risks, which is great for the plot, but it also makes him less prone to the sharp self analysis that makes Smiley so fascinating.

Regardless, there's enough here to make this a great read. The use of Hong Kong as a setting emphasises the theme of an Empire in decline that runs throughout this trilogy.

There's a great quote where Westerby ponders the decline of Britain and realises that it was his own social class that brought it about. (I'm on holiday in Florida at the moment but I'll dig the quote out when I get home.)

Britain's decline is contrasted with America's growing power. Despite the debacle of Vietnam, the US is going from strength to strength and Smiley is forced to work with "the cousins" to get what he wants. With them involved, Le Carre, seems to suggest, some of the gentlemanly spirit is lost from the game of espionage.

So if this is a more straightforward spy novel than Le Carre's other efforts, it still retains enough of his cynicism and ambivalence to give it power.

The novel's climax would be standard thriller fare for lesser writers but Le Carre embues the action with an air of melancholy that fits the tone of the trilogy perfectly.