I had begun my quest idly – you may say frivolously – much as one might pick up an old copy of the Tatler in one’s club. (p.262)
The last of le Carré’s novels to feature tubby, unprepossessing, owlish cuckold George Smiley. It is a series of tales told in the first person by old British Intelligence man Ned (we never get his last name). He was in charge of the ‘Russia House’ wing of British Intelligence when the publisher/agent who he was managing, Barley Blair, went missing and defected for love (the story told in the novel, The Russia House.)
Partly as punishment for this foul-up, Ned is despatched to serve out his last years till retirement supervising the Intelligence training school at Sarratt. He invites Smiley up from his retirement in Cornwall to come and lecture the trainees, followed by whisky by the fire and reminiscences.
This is the frame narrative within which Ned proceeds to remember key moments in his career, starting in the early 1960s and proceeding up to the present – to the fall of the Berlin Wall and (the unthinkable) fact of senior Circus bosses being invited to Moscow to tour KGB headquarters! In light of the defeat of Soviet communism and the triumph of the West, Ned can’t help wondering all the failures and the betrayal were worth it.
1. Fat Boy and Panda One of Ned’s first assignments is to tail a rich Saudi prince, in London to finalise important arms sales. He quickly wins the nickname Fat Boy from the watchers, and his wife earns the nickname Panda for the dark rings round her eyes. It is a comic story, for the MI6 watchers following her soon realise that she is herself being tailed by a Middle Eastern man, and begin to panic whether it’s a kidnapper or even an assassin. Bit it turns out the Panda is a kleptomaniac, and this man is employed by her to hush up the outraged store detectives and pay for everything she’s walked off with stuffed into her handbag and up her sleeve.
2. Ben In training Ned is paired with Ben. They went to public school then Oxford at the same time, then both took commissions in the Army before joining British Intelligence. Ie their story is proof of the very narrow pool of like-minded, posh people who make up the Service. Ben is posted to Berlin. One day Smiley and a squad of searchers arrive at Ned’s place and start interrogating him. What’s going on? Ben has disappeared: kidnapped, gone over to the other side? And their main network in East Germany has been ‘rolled up’, betrayed, arrested. They know the pair were good friends and then, Smiley reveals, they have discovered a love letter to Ned from Ben. Turns out Ben was gay and in love with Ned, though Ned never knew. Ned remembers Ben had mentioned the old country estate of some cousins in the Western Isles of Scotland. Ned does a bunk, evading the watchers set on his flat, catches a train to Glasgow and then ferries out to the estate. Here he meets Ben’s aloof cousin – Stefanie – who, in this wild mountain scenery, he falls in love with on sight. Ben is out at the loch, fishing mournfully. Ned walks down and stands by him. After some manly silence Ben tells him the story: the boss at Berlin was an intimidating martinet, testing Ben again and again before his first meeting with the leader of the East German network. Ben, like a good swot, makes a set of prompt cards with complete details of all the agents, their names, address, passwords, secret codes. When the day for his first drop into the East and first meeting with the Top Agent arrives, Ben finds himself taking them with him in his jacket pocket. He has to get out of a not-quite-stationary car, pick up a bicycle, cycle to the rendezvous, lock it up, meet the Agent, exchange documents, back to the bike and unlock it, cycle back to a rendezvous with a different car. When he got back into this car, he realised the notes had all gone from his pocket. He had dropped them somewhere. East German agents must have found them and used the information to arrest the entire network, because by the end of that day the network had been betrayed. Distraught, Ben flew to London, then onto Glasgow, then the ferry boat to this Western Isle, where Stefanie cooks for him but leaves him to cope with despair at his ineptitude and failure. Soon afterwards, Smiley and his people arrive to arrest him. Ned returns to London, convinced he will be fired, and bewitched by the beautiful, artistic, remote Stefanie.
3. Bella and Captain Brand But Ned isn’t dismissed, he is sent to Hamburg. It is the early 1960s and Ned takes charge of Captain Brand and his circle of Latvian patriots, who run illicit missions along the Baltic coast. Brand is a big-hearted sailor with a drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend, Bella. As soon as Brand and crew have departed on a mission to drop agents on the Latvian coast, Ned and Bella are at it like rabbits. Le Carré gives slightly cringe-inducing descriptions of her riding him, going down on him, offering him her rear for his penetration etc etc. When the mission to Latvia goes badly wrong – the patriots are met with machine guns, several killed – Ned is summoned back to England, to the executives on ‘the Fifth Floor’ who are convinced Bella is the traitor and Ned finds himself defending her, despite his own misgivings. Smiley plays an oblique role, appearing to defend Ned and his instincts against Bill Haydon, head of European operations, who insists Bella is the spy who betrayed the mission. Three years later the events described in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy take place, revealing Haydon to be a high-level Russian mole, confirming that it was hearty sailor Brand who was the spy, all the evidence against Bella having been cooked up by Moscow Central to protect him. She is shipped off to a new identity in Canada, never to see Ned again.
4. The Professor Ned is posted to Munich and tasked with managing a Hungarian professor, Teodor, who claims to be running a Hungarian network. Ned is suspicious of him from the start, him and his unhappy, ex-actress wife Helena, especially when he almost immediately starts asking for a British or American passport. But Toby Esterhase, one of the main characters in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and who survived the Bill Haydon revelations, insists he is a great source for the Americans. When Ned checks with the Americans they say, No, we were told he’s a great source for you. Hmm. One night Ned gets a melodramatic phone call from the Professor. A Hungarian assassin – Latzi – has come to kill him, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, confessed, and is now in his house. Ned rushes over. The shamefaced middle-aged, meek assassin empties his pockets of gun, cyanide bullets, garroting wire etc and tells an elaborate story about being briefed and sent to kill the Very Important Professor. All three are whisked away to a safe house where they are interrogated by MI6 and the CIA. Eventually, the Professor and wife are given US passports and put on the next flight Stateside. But not before the wife, walking down by the lakefront with Ned, admits it’s all a con. The ‘assassin’ is an out-of-work actor they hired to make the Prof look important. Ned doesn’t tell.
5. Colonel Jerzy Oskar, an agent in Poland who had gone quiet, suddenly activates again, sending messages in all the right codes, using all the right procedures. London is sceptical but Ned insists on going over to find out for himself whether it still is the same man. He flies into Poland on a forged Dutch passport and travels to Gdansk to meet Oskar. Instead, it is a trap and he is picked up by a group of well-organised communist security men who immediately start beating him up, then take him to a big empty house where he is really systematically beaten, losing several teeth, getting cracked ribs, before passing out, then waking up chained to a radiator burning his back and getting beaten some more. He sticks to his story that he is a Dutch businessman and this is all a terrible mistake and eventually, reluctantly, the officer in charge of the beating, stocky pock-marked Colonel Jerzy, orders him released. He is helped to a bath, cleaned and put in new clothes, then Jerzy drives him to an isolated spot and orders him out of the car. Dazed and in pain Ned wonders if he is going to be executed and pushed in the river. But no. Turns out Jerzy wants to become a spy for the West! Amazed, Ned sticks to his line of being a Dutch businessman and the exasperated Jerzy says, ‘OK, Have it your way, I will send you good information via such and such a channel when you are safely back in the West. We take it from there, OK?’ And indeed Jerzy becomes a totally reliable, high-level agent, revealing much about Polish and eastern Bloc security plans for the next five years. Ned speculates at length about Jerzy’s motives, but he appears simply to be bored. In a post-script, after the Berlin Wall has fallen, Ned is watching a TV report about a Catholic cardinal holding a huge open-air mass and, to his amazement, witnesses the moment when, among the throng pouring round him, the cardinal spots a hesitant Jerzy. The cardinal makes straight for him and there is a moment of recognition between them before Jerzy kneels to be blessed. And in that moment Ned knows the cardinal is one of the many many Poles that Jerzy has tortured and interrogated.
6. Britta Ned is in Beirut, in the depths of the Lebanon civil war (1975-1990), hearing the AK47s firing nightly, and the occasional car bomb. He is tracking down a German woman agent known as Britta. Eventually he discovers she is being held in an Israeli camp in the Negev Desert. Ned flies out there and interviews her under the supervision of some typically tough Israeli security officers. Britta turns out to be a) she is stunningly beautiful (as so many of the young women in le Carré are) b) phenomenally indoctrinated in a kind of sexual liberation / terrorist Marxism, a creed which justifies throwing bombs onto buses in order to ‘waken the slumbering masses’ etc. She refuses to co-operate in any way and Ned, in his self-absorbed way, departs shaken that her fanaticism speaks to something in him which wants to rebel. — [The whole episode feels like an off-cut from The Little Drummer Girl which dealt so intensively with the same milieu.]
7. Hansen Like Ned, half-Dutch, Hansen is an extraordinary figure, a wanderer and trouble-maker who, as a youth, is sent to the Jesuits in the hope they’ll make something of him, and becomes a fully qualified priest before being despatched to Dutch South-East Asia. Here he becomes a languages and culture scholar before sinking into more familiar le Carré territory ie reports soon emerge of his sexual escapades in villages and cities, with men, women and children. Finally, the Head of Station in Bangkok reports he’s been spotted by a Chinaman in their pay. Ned flies out to meet him and spends a long night in a hotel room listening to Hansen’s extraordinary story – how he lived in a safe part of Cambodia, well embedded in a village, with a native wife and young daughter, radioing in targets for the American bombers to pulverise. The Khmer Rouge are active in the area and one day he returns to the village to find it completely empty. He follows the trail of corpses to the Khmer Rouge camp, is captured but vows to survive the torture in order to protect his teenage daughter. To his dismay, she is successfully indoctrinated by the Khmer and denounces him as an imperialist bourgeois lackey etc. Still, it is probably her intervention which prevents him being murdered when the Khmers up sticks and move on. But Hansen follows them and her, discovering she left the group, scouring South-East Asia and eventually discovering her in a brothel in Bangkok. She is numbed, almost lobotimised by her experiences, and only finds authenticity in servicing her clients. But Hansen gets a job at the brothel as a jack-of-all-trades so he can keep an eye on her and take her home safely at night. Ned offers him money to be resettled somewhere. Hansen, totally embittered by the awful job he did calling in a holocaust of bombs on innocent villages and the disastrous effect it’s had on Cambodia, says, ‘Keep your stinking money’, and Ned returns to the office a sadder and wiser man.
This is the most powerful and the most Catholic of the stories. The violence and the casual attitude to prostitutes and brothels and the Catholic self-dramatisation of Hansen telling his story remind me of Graham Greene and of his novel set in Vietnam and with a prostitute as a central character, The Quiet American.
8. Ken Hawthorne A retired soldier sends a letter to the Service which George is tasked to handle. His tearaway son, in prison, insists he is a British agent, briefly returned from Russia and hiding in prison as a cover. ‘Don’t contact me again, Dad,’ he says: ‘but listen, there’s a club of us spies and we meet every year and, if we’ve done well, they award us special cufflinks.’ Dad gets letters from his son in various hand-writings hinting at secret missions. Then he is murdered in prison and his mum and dad bury him. The dad writes the letter to MI6: was his son an agent? Smiley calls him in for a slow patient questioning, then goes away and ransacks the Circus’s raddled files. No. He wasn’t. He never had anything to do with the Service and is indeed the sadistic thug his criminal record suggests. But, in a gesture of sweet kindness, Smiley invites the parents for a second interview: insists his son was nothing to do with them; never undertook any missions for them; he can disclose no more. And silently hands the dad a pair of beautiful gold cufflinks. They leave with tears in their eyes. Ned later finds out the cufflinks were a present to Smiley from his adulterous wife, Ann.
9. Frewin An anonymous letter denounces Cyril Frewin, an anonymous operative in the Cipher Section, as a spy, linking him with Modrian from the Soviet Embassy. Ned goes to Frewin’s sad suburban semi and the novel gives us a lengthy verbatim account of his interview of Frewin: over twenty pages or so we see precisely how a clever man like Ned can manipulate and play on the psychological weaknesses of a sad loner like Frewin to get him to finally confess that, yes, he was a spy for Modrian. But more than that, the story shows how Modrian and the Russians skillfully and elaborately played on Frewin’s sense of isolation in order to befriend him, to identify the things he loves (classical music, educated conversation), to persuade him they are on his side, in order to exploit him, and slowly increase the level of information they ask Frewin to send them. Ned realises he is guilty of just as much psychological exploitation as Modrian and (we’re getting used to it by this time) feels soiled and sickened.
Was love an ideology? Was loyalty a political party? Or had we, in our rush to divide the world, divided it in the wrong way, failing to notice that the real battle lay between those who were searching, and those who, in order to prevail, had reduced their vulnerability to the lowest common factor of indifference? I was on the brink of destroying a man for love. (p.332)
There is an awful lot of pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-theological discussion of love and betrayal and love and fidelity and love and loyalty in these stories. Who knew that British intelligence agents spent so much time thinking about love?
The style is deliberately, overtly posh, an attempt – I think – to give Ned a distinct voice. Public school, Oxford, a commission in the Army, then a spell in the Navy, before the Secret Service, Ned is impeccably pukkah and so is the world he moves in. When he mixes with the 95% of the population who didn’t go to private school – Monty and his team of ‘watchers’ or mum and dad of Ken Hawthorne – he is nervously aware he is mixing with ‘the other ranks’, the ‘NCOs’, people who can’t write a decent letter or are intimidated in the presence of their ‘betters’.
As in previous Circus novels there is a tone of complacency typified by the use of ‘we’. Back in those days we all this… We revered those senior figures… We felt that Smiley… In those days we… etc. — Ned’s tone suggests a schoolmaster fondly recalling some of his more reprobate pupils, or a young master filled with awe and reverence for the old timers who embody the much-loved institution and its values. It is a tone of complacent self-justification, as if the ‘Circus’ and its internal squabbles is all that matters in the world.
After all, le Carré had a spell as a teacher at Eton. Eton. Is it possible to be more Establishment than that? And Ned’s role in the novel is as teacher or supervisor of trainee spies at Sarratt – so the patronising smugness of the old teacher – whoops, master – may be justified. Still, Ned’s tone often makes it seem as if British Intelligence was rather like a ramshackle public school, populated by eccentric, clever, spiteful masters, forever politicking among themselves and sending poor East European agents to their capture, torture and death. Oh well. Can’t be helped. Can I tempt you to another glass of this rather fine brandy?
Clive Bellamy, a gangly, mischievous Etonian, was in charge of Sarratt. (p.221)
Rumbelow (Station Head in Bangkok) spoke like an Etonian bookmaker. (p.225)
He put on an avuncular, friend-to-friend manner that reminded me of my preparatory-school headmaster. (p.318)
I continued writing to her from Tunbridge Wells but it became as difficult as writing home from [boarding] school. (p.334)
Even the enemy are seen in the same ‘what-ho, old Duffers eh, what a card’ public school tone of voice:
After my five years in the Russia House, Sergei Modrian was plain Sergei to me, as he had been to the rest of us: old Sergei, the crafty Armenian, head boy of Moscow Centre’s generously over-staffed residence at the Soviet Embassy in London. (p.274)
Head boy! Did the KGB see its operatives in terms of English public school positions?
At various points Ned has qualms and doubts and maybe the novel as a whole is meant to signify his ‘pilgrimage’ towards greater self-awareness and understanding of the role MI6 really played in these historical events. But it feels limited, like the master at a posh school who slowly comes to realise that maybe the senior staff aren’t the gods he was led to believe, and the mission to educate and civilise isn’t everything it was cracked up to be. But he doesn’t leave and he can’t leave, because deep down this is the only world, and these are only values, he knows.
The ‘we we we’ is one aspect of the comfortable self-dramatisation. Ned takes the mickey out of himself for doing it, but carries on regardless making epic drama out of his life and work. The trip to see Ben in Scotland talks about the ‘Wagnerian’ setting and the ‘Romantic’ situation. In all the other stories he reaches for grand comparisons from European culture. It is typical that he refers to the revelation that Haydon was a Russian spy as ‘The Fall’, and the periods before and after as ‘Before The Fall’ and ‘After The Fall’. Typically bombastic. And it conceals the reality. There was no Fall, it wasn’t a legendary, mythic event. You idiots let a Russian spy rise to become chief British Intelligence’s entire East European spy network. He passed on every important secret which crossed his desk for 15 years or more. All because he was a jolly good chap, went to a good public school and Cambridge, had a ‘first-rate mind’ and so on and so on. The bombast – the comparisons with Wagner or the Bible or Don Quixote or Shakespeare – conceal the incompetence. No wonder the Yanks distrusted us.
Although, on a conscious level, the narrator analyses the career of spying as shabby and full of moral qualms etc, he actually describes it with grandiose and self-aggrandising comparisons, with a mock heroism that is so consistently present that it eventually turns into just heroism.
Like Quixote, I had set out in life vowing to check the flow of evil. (p.186)
Only Ahmed behind the counter who for a few dollars and a smile, would tell you the secrets of the universe. (p.200)
[Was he] a high-school war tourist on the hippy trail, searching for kicks in the city of the damned? (P.201)
The language, the comparisons, all as inflated as Milton’s Grand Style. On the same page he describes being in bed with his mistress, Monica, when he gets a call saying his mother’s been taken ill.
By an act of divine ill taste I was in bed with Monica when I took the call. (p.186)
‘Divine ill taste?’ Really? You think God had something to do with it? Isn’t it just an accident? In fact, does it matter at all where he is or who he’s with? No. Only to someone used to dramatising their every step as divinely fated or divinely tasteful would this be worth noting. He goes on to write of his mother’s death:
‘I was orphaned and elated all at once… At last I stood unencumbered before life’s challenges… And when I looked at myself in the mirror of the undertaker’s rose-tinted lavatory after my night’s vigil, I was horrified by what I saw. It was the face of a spy branded by his own deception.’ (p.187).
I think the expression is: Get over yourself!
The tale about the Dutch Jesuit spy Hansen is the most powerful piece because of the intense description it gives of being captured and tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Le Carré, in my opinion, weakens it by having the very tough Hansen a) be a Roman Catholic priest b) be taken prisoner because he is on a religious quest to find his young daughter. Thus a story which is quite harrowing enough, piles on every possible opportunity to cast each event, from his torture to her assimilation by the guerrillas, as edge-of-the-seat threats to their immortal souls. Having recently completed reading all of Graham Greene’s novels, I’ve had enough to last me a lifetime of the self-obsession and overblown melodrama of literary Catholicism:
Hansen had glared into my face with eyes lit by the red hells from which he had returned. (p.217)
‘Once you have embarked upon the impossible concept of God, you will know that real love permits no rejection. Perhaps that is something only a sinner can properly understand. Only a sinner knows the scale of God’s forgiveness.’ (p.238)
Maybe. But it seems a certainty that once you come out of the closet as a Catholic novelist there is no end, literally no end, to the amount of sentences and paragraphs and chapters and novels you can fill with pseudo-theology and self-important attitudinising:
[Hansen was] in search of Marie, his pure love, the earth mother who was his daughter, the only keeper of his grace. (p.240)
With Marie to support him, he could bear anything. Each would be the salvation of the other. Her love for him was as fierce and single-minded as his for her. He did not doubt it. For all his loathing of captivity, he thanked God he had followed her. (p.242)
I am nourishing her from my own breast. I am her guardian, the protector of her chastity. I am her priest, giving her Christ’s Sacrament.
Once this tone of holy pretentiousness is broached it becomes catching. Chapter 11 starts with Smiley explaining to the young acolytes:
‘And some interrogations are not interrogations at all, but communions between damaged souls.’ (p.273)
The stories themselves are gripping and fascinating. The intellectual framework within which they’re cast – the self-dramatisation, the emphasis on love and redemption and grace and salvation and communion etc, give them a very strong flavour, a particular set of spices, which I think you either love or hate.
Stefanie, Bella, Mabel, Monica, Marie, Sally
Lots of nubile and sexually available or provocative young women in le Carré’s fiction:
- Stefanie is the half-German artist cousin of his friend and incompetent Ben, who he falls for heavily but she ignores him and moves abroad. He carries a torch for her the rest of his life.
- Bella is the scorchingly sexy girlfriend of beefy Captain Brand, who introduces Ned to championship sex.
- Mabel is the dull English woman he actually marries and who likes curling up on the sofa in the evening with the Daily Telegraph (p.181).
- Monica is a girl in the Service’s Industrial Liaison Unit who he has an affair with (p.186).
- Marie is the Asian daughter of Hansen, the Jesuit priest-turned-spy, who he pursues across South-East Asia only to find her turned into a numb prostitute in Bangkok. Before he finds Hansen Ned is given a display of her skills. The way she turns, raises and wiggles her bare bottom provocatively at him (p.231) reminds the reader of the gorgeous Bella doing the same (p.100). Lucky Ned.
In chapter 11 he is having an affair with Sally, a tall, fair designer and ‘dancer’. Colleagues irritate him by asking after his wife; are they separating? Divorcing? He has become a mirror image of Smiley, who is faithful and quiet, betrayed by his wife, Lady Ann, taking serial lovers. Here it is Ned who appears to have the serial affairs, betraying his staid wife, Mabel. But in both models, a marriage is actually about betrayal and is another way to justify the tone of world-weary self-importance which dominates the book.
Out with the old…
Once you look, you realise every reference to George Smiley lays on with a trowel his wisdom, his insight, his patient deduction, the way he is ahead of everyone. In the last few pages he is referred to as sitting on a ‘throne’ as he talks to the students. Earlier we had heard of the cup and saucer he bequeathed to the secretary pool at the Circus being treated like a ‘chalice’. This is ridiculously overblown; makes it sound like an Arthurian romance. Smiley delivers a suitably vague and bombastic peroration about Russia – characteristically referred to as ‘the Bear’ rather than any detail of actual administrations, actual leaders, actual complex policies – we must help her join the community of nations etc. But his parting shot to the trainees is they must also be alert to the way we in the West have ‘given up too many of our freedoms in order to be free’. We must be watchful of our own society, as well.
Like the farewell speech of a much beloved headmaster. And so, amid sentimental tears and wise admonishments, George Smiley leaves the scene.
… and in with the new
But that isn’t the end. Instead, with only days till his retirement, Ned is sent on one last mission, to persuade an arrogant financier, a man who has built a fortune, bought a knighthood and a vast landed estate, based on business deals he did for the Service, to now stop selling arms and munitions to unsuitable nations (Serbia, central Africa).
Rich, replete Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw offers him champagne and tells him to fuck off. With dismay Ned realises these are the new breed, the completely ruthless, amoral international financiers who he has made the world safe for. Ned toys with telling him that, now we’ve defeated communism we have to set about defeating capitalism. But Bradshaw pounds on about how if he doesn’t sell the buggers arms someone else will and good luck to them. Business is business. This country’s going soft. Where there’s money to be made, he will make it. Ned fails, He has made the world safe for people like Bradshaw, and now it is over to them…
The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré, published in 1991 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1991 Coronet paperback edition, 1994 impression.
- The Secret Pilgrim on Amazon
- The Secret Pilgrim Wikipedia article
- John le Carré Wikipedia article
- John le Carré’s website
John Le Carré’s novels
- Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
- A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
- The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
- A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
- The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
- The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
- Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
- The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
- A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
- The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
- The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
- The Night Manager (1993)
- Our Game (1995)
- The Tailor of Panama (1996)
- Single & Single (1999)
- The Constant Gardener (2001)
- Absolute Friends (2003)
- The Mission Song (2006)
- A Most Wanted Man (2008)
- Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
- A Delicate Truth (2013)