Book twenty-three: Smiley's People by John Le Carre

And so to the final book in the trilogy. It is about a year after the events of The Honourable Schoolboy and George Smiley is back in retirement. When General Vladimir, an Estonian exile and former British agent, is shot dead on Hampstead Heath, The Circus sends for Smiley, not to investigate but to cover up the crime.

British Intelligence does not want to risk one of its own getting caught burying evidence and, as Vladimir's former handler, Smiley is perfect for the task. However, as he follows the trail, Smiley begins to suspect that Vladimir was onto something and sees his chance for one last tilt at Karla, his old enemy:

He knew - he was barely at the threshold - yet he still knew that it was just possible, against all the odds, that he had been given, in late age, a chance to return to the rained-off contests of his life and play them after all. If that was so, then no Ann, no false peace, no tainted witness to his actions, should disturb his lonely quest. He had not known his mind till then. But now he knew it.

Smiley's single-minded pursuit of Karla leads him to ignore protocol and ultimately adopt some of his enemy's methods. Le Carre wants us to question whether it's worth it. How much of himself should Smiley give to get what he wants? Are Smiley and Karla really that different after all?

After a slight dip in quality with the second book, Smiley's People raises the bar again and is almost as good as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

That it isn't quite as good is perhaps because it is too similar: once again Smiley begins with a puzzle and he tackles it by going to the old case files, debriefing his former colleagues and steadily piecing the solution together. At times it almost feels as though one is reading the first book.

Nevertheless, it's another wonderful read. Le Carre has a real compassion for his characters, whatever side they're on, and it shows on the page. And, as I think I've said before, he's a master at portraying the moral ambivalence of the espionage business.

The ultimate drive of the novel is twofold: will Smiley get what he wants? And if he does, will he be satisfied? Le Carre leaves both unanswered until almost the final page.

Finally, I should point out that I didn't read this in a day. I finished The Honourable Schoolboy the night before I left for Florida and didn't have time to post about it until yesterday. In the meantime, I had been reading Smiley's People.

That leaves me with three books to read and 32 days in which to read them.