Book Review: The Karla Trilogy

1973: the height of the Cold War, and a mole is suspected in the highest echelons of the British Secret Service. Unhappily retired ex-deputy chief George Smiley is recruited by former colleagues to investigate the infiltrator, and so begins his quest to destroy the considerable influence of his Soviet nemesis Karla. It’s a mission that spans three novels – often named ‘The Karla Trilogy’ – and it’s a thrilling, complex and deftly plotted insight into the byzantine world of spies.


The series begins with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, arguably the best in the trilogy.  Beginning with a sedate London setting, the series then sweeps into the dangerous and unpredictable terrain of Southeast Asia in The Honourable Schoolboy and finishes with a murder in Hampstead Heath and an investigation in continental Europe for the conclusive Smiley’s People. Author John Le Carre has been critically acclaimed for the realism and social commentary inherent in his novels: the Circus of Le Carre’s imaginings is subtle, credible and decidedly unsensational, a genre-based series that thankfully resists stereotypes and exaggeration. And, unlike many similar spy novels, it is usually impossible to guess the endings. In fact, I’m still not entirely clear that I understood the undercurrents pervading the novels, each with its own revelations of the intricate world in which the protagonists exist, and its own separate plot to be slowly, painstakingly revealed.

But Le Carre’s true genius is his characterisation. George Smiley – bespectacled, chubby, plodding George Smiley – is an unlikely candidate for the role of the British master spy, but that is precisely what ensures the compelling and captivating nature of his tenure.  Each character, from perceptive Peter Guillam to tough Madam Ostrokova, is eloquently equipped with flaws, merits and idiosyncrasies; and each individual feels real, an achievement that is often accomplished with difficulty by even the most skilled of writers.

The Honourable Schoolboy is perhaps the weakest of the three: with a 700 page plot that occasionally feels unwieldy – especially during Jerry’s excursions beyond Hong Kong – and a conspiracy that can feel periodically shapeless, it’s no wonder if the reader’s interest begins to droop slightly. But a hundred pages before the end and things pick up considerably: Le Carre’s denouement is, without a doubt, flawless and admirably executed. Fast paced, engaging and undeniably inventive – statements which also characterise the series’ suspenseful bookends – it summarises precisely what readers desire from a well-written, carefully plotted spy novel. And I’m already looking forward to returning to the Circus.


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