May 13, 2012


by John le Carre
686 pages, Sceptre

Review by Pat Black

Well, aren’t I quite the fan? I enjoyed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy so much, I’ve read the book, watched the old TV show on DVD and now I’ve seen the movie. If there’s an amusing fridge magnet or a T-shirt I can buy, do let me know.

I’ve also watched the Smiley’s People series, which brings an end to John le Carre’s spy saga involving a battle of wits between British Secret Service veteran George Smiley and his Soviet nemesis, known only as Karla.

So, I’ve spoiled the novel of Smiley’s People for myself; I know how it all ends. But what I didn’t know until recently is that the Smiley/Karla story was a trilogy. The Honourable Schoolboy is the mid-point of this, so, unlike with Tinker Tailor, I had the pleasure of knowing nothing at all about the story when I opened the book.

It’s a dense book. Like Tinker Tailor - and like George Smiley - it refuses to be rushed, taking its less-than-sweet time. It’s perhaps a sign of my advancing age (and I should confess that I’ve been listening to Tony Blackburn’s jazzfunksoul show on Radio 2 this afternoon, and enjoying it), but I would probably have been bored rigid with TheHonourable Schoolboy had I tried it 10 or 15 years ago. I may have gotten to the end – I’m one of these people who must see a book through, even if it’s awful – but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

Now, a few years and at least three stone in weight later, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this second journey through the heart of the Circus, and beyond. There’s something quite unique about le Carre’s fiction: it is a ponderous, calculated fictional world, and requires more than a video game hair-trigger concentration span to get into. In today’s publishing world that is a very rare thing. I enjoyed The Honourable Schoolboy in the same way I did TTSS; for its calculated, complicated world, its atmosphere of deeply buried enmities and above all, its lo-fi tradecraft. We’re talking about a time in publishing history which took place after I was born, but already the lack of technology feels like it was from a different geological age. Someone refers to a computer, just once, and we imagine a clanking, hissing piece of machinery, spitting out punchcards and possibly psychotic, like Stephen King’s “The Mangler”.

It’s a polite novel, too, in spite of the grating attempts at slang. How does that grab you, sport? In fact, the novel is like a ladies’ luncheon society suddenly turning sinister over whose turn it is to pay the bill, relationships going sour over a period of months without so much as a flicker in the dentures. What the hell am I talking about?

We join Smiley and co after the events of Tinker Tailor. With the mole in his grave, the British Secret Service begins the humiliating business of dismantling its apparatus across the world. In many cases, literally – conferences at the Circus HQ are conducted in crumbling rooms with not even the baize on the tables surviving the purge, having been ripped apart by “housekeepers” looking for evidence of the mole’s treachery in the form of bugs and other recording equipment. As metaphors for the death of Britain’s influence on the world stage go, it’s, er, a bit of an open goal.

Smiley, acting as head of the Circus in the wake of the dreadful Allenby’s resignation, goes about closing down bureaux across the world, on the assumption that just about every operation they’ve undertaken over the years has been blown by the traitor from the preceding novel (who I am struggling manfully not to name here!). But for Smiley – a crafty man with fathomless depths of intelligence and tactical nous – it provides an opportunity to hit back. By means of “back-reaching”, Smiley can look at operations the traitor closed down without good reason – a sure sign that the operation was potentially dangerous to Karla, the Soviet spymaster who directed his activities. One of these avenues of inquiry throws up a “goldseam” – a trail of money, apparently from Soviet funds, which went to an unknown source in Hong Kong (then still under the jurisdiction of the UK, of course).

Enter the honourable schoolboy in the title, Jerry Westerby. Jerry is a journalist, but also a “sleeper” agent, a part-timer kept as a reserve by the Circus until such times as he’s needed. Smiley dispatches Westerby to Hong Kong, under the cover of his day job, in order to find out more about this goldseam, where the money came from, and whom it’s going to.

To reveal more about the plot would take more time than we’ve got here, but Westerby finds himself putting the screws on sources in Hong Kong in order to get account information, before following through on tips and deductions to look into a decorated British citizen, Mr Drake Ko, OBE, who seems to be the key to the whole affair. From here there’s a plot to stimulate the opium market in Red China, as well as an attempted bid to smuggle a senior Soviet operative into Hong Kong.

Of course, there’s a woman involved in this – an expatriate English girl, a high-class escort who seems to have a hand in every single strand of the story. And it’s here that the story’s true “zero on the wheel” can be found. 

Where THS trumps TTSS is in its scenes of violence and peril. It was a lunge into Fleming territory – exciting, sure, but a marked difference from the concealed menace of Tinker Tailor. I was a little disappointed in some of the things the recent movie adaptation of Tinker Tailor inserted into the story, presumably as a sop to stop people getting bored. There were a lot of dead bodies, blood, bullets, brains and general violence (not to mention the curious fact that Smiley’s lieutenant, Guillam, is gay in the film, which he is not in the books). This book has a lot more action in it, as Westerby gets handy with his fists, dodges bullets from the Khmer Rouge and heroin barons in Cambodia as he chases one line of inquiry, and is almost taken out by a fiendishly clever car bomb. So, if you felt Tinker Tailor was missing a bit of oomph, The Honourable Schoolboy ramps it up.

The setting is crucial, too. Le Carre never pulls a punch when he examines what foreign intervention has done to China, and with Westerby taking a detour through unbelievably hostile places in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia just as the US pulls out of Saigon, Le Carre is equally clear on where the US stands as a foreign power under Nixon (I wonder what Smiley would have made of the west’s flatlining incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan?). There’s a sort of Ragnarok feeling to proceedings here, including a surreal dinner party taking place at an ambassador’s house even while mortars and rockets clatter into the building, quivering the cutlery and dimming the lights.

It’s a novel about journalism, too – a viewpoint into an increasingly lost world of male-dominated, drink-fuelled machismo, deadlines and ancient, iron-clad typewriters, lugged around the world in cases like blunderbusses. The foreign stringers Westerby mingles with seem to be right out of a comic book, sybarites and fornicators one and all (whahey!), but I can attest to this portrayal as having some truth to it. Back in the dim days when I first laid down copy, I can tell you that the sleazy booze culture of the newsroom was still alive, although in its death throes. Women were outsiders; male clubbishness was the order of the day, and pecking orders were in place for the young bucks and the old grizzlies alike. 

Should anyone miss those days? Well, with luck, the sexism is on the wane (quite apart from the content of some newspapers and websites), but the day of the booze-addled clichéd hack is just about out the door now, save for the rare occasions when I feel like playing up to it. A lot of those lads I used to do “liquid lunches” with back in the day – less than 15 years ago? Long enough, folks – are in their graves, few of them surviving long past retirement.

But is the journalism any better these days? I couldn’t possibly comment.

This is an extremely class-conscious novel, something I suspect le Carre may not have intended. Everyone who is anyone comes from Oxbridge, and outsiders – the Scots or the Welsh, in this novel – are described as exactly that. The formidable Russian expert Connie Sachs aside, there are few shining beacons of feminism, or even equality, in this book (published in 1977, set two-and-a-bit years earlier). The ladies are either fruity bluestockings to be chased by much older men, fallen angels, full-on whores or simple props to occupy the time, with a nod to Michael Stipe. Much of this is a symptom of the age, but I was confounded by the denouement to the story, which demands that we believe, after everything we’ve encountered in the previous six hundred pages, that an experienced, tough, cynical man involved in a deadly line of work would ignore years of training, narrow escapes and front-line combat because he thinks he might be in love with someone he’s barely met. 

It’s the only part of the book that doesn’t quite work, and the novel is flawed – though not fatally – because of it.

Le Carre is on record as saying that he regrets that this is a “Smiley” novel, feeling that his short, round, bespectacled little owl pulled readers out of the main thrust of the story - Westerby’s eastern odyssey. I disagree; Smiley’s presence is often electrifying. More disappointingly, Peter Guillam, Smiley’s trusted lieutenant, is given very little to do this time. He only really serves as something of an amanuensis, a prism to reflect Smiley’s ponderous, inscrutable genius as he ties together the loose ends in the face of pressure from Whitehall as well as the “Cousins” in US intelligence. Of Ann, Smiley’s unfaithful wife, there is mercifully little apart from one dodgy scene outside her bedroom window which I think I once saw in Holiday On The Buses, or the Benny Hill Show. Just ditch her and get on with it George, eh?

So, The Honourable Schoolboy is a full meal, for sure, with lots of strong meat – a paradox in that it’s dense, slow-moving and considered, and yet a furious page-turner and thriller, too. If you’re on board the le Carre bus and liked Tinker Tailor, then this is more of the same. Roll on Smiley’s People, and here’s to St George – long may he keep slaying dragons, though hopefully for fairer hands.

1 comment:

  1. Just stumbled upon this review and appreciated it. I'm almost done with Schoolboy, and there's so much to digest. The Smiley stuff is some of the my favorite in the book, but Jerry's (mis)adventures all over southeast Asia is riveting as well. I too was kind of surprised at how much gunplay was here...different than most of the other le Carre I've read!