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Betrayal Is Timeless: The Evolution of George Smiley 


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In 1961, a dashing young President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was sworn into office amidst world crisis.   To greet the new President, East Germany covertly erected the Berlin Wall and Russia launched Yuri Gregorian into Earth orbit from a secret underground bunker. Not to be outdone, CIA trained mercenaries stormed the beaches of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba and later assassinated the Dominican President, Rafael Trujillo, in bungled attempts at regime change. Nuclear warheads were bristling at “Fail Safe” designation on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The Cold War was hot and spies were in demand. 

Espionage fiction was also in demand, led by a dashing British secret agent named James Bond, a personal favorite of JFK. Bond’s popularity spawned countless imitators, most of them forgettable.  However, one British secret agent who made his debut in 1961, unnoticed by JFK and nearly everyone else, would prove to be quite unforgettable.

Stately, plump, George Smiley stepped onto the stage in the first sentence of John le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead; introduced as a “breathtakingly ordinary” man. Hardly a dashing entrance. However deprecating the introduction, Smiley would calmly carry on to eventually rival Bond as crime fiction’s most popular and influential spy. 

In 2021, George Smiley will mark sixty years of life in fiction. With that milestone in mind, I decided to spend my year of COVID lockdown in the company of the owl-eyed British gentleman. Reading the nine Smiley novels in order of publication, I came away with a deepened respect for the remarkable talents of John le Carré, an admiration made especially poignant by his recent passing at the age of 89.

I also came away with some insight into George Smiley’s evolution from “breathtakingly ordinary” origins into a master spy in the top ranks of the crime fiction pantheon.

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Smiley’s success begins with the quality of the writing. Le Carré’s skills as a storyteller are renowned, not only among readers, but also among authors across the spectrum of genres and cultures. The Smiley series also benefits from the author’s knowledge of tradecraft drawn from his personal experience as a British spy. John le Carré was the cover name chosen by intelligence agent David Cornwall when he started writing fiction, in order to pass British state censorship. Cornwall’s success as an author allowed him to quit the service, but, like a good spy, he kept the cover. He also continued to do his casework before each book, visiting Berlin, Moscow and Southeast Asia and interviewing contacts in the covert world. 

As a result, Smiley is the most “credible” spy I have encountered in fiction. A legion of fans, including countless intelligence operatives, agree. Smiley’s devotees may not know, or even care, what kind of handgun he prefers or how he likes a martini prepared, but they do know that he cleans his thick-lensed eyeglasses with his tie, that he lives at 9 Bywater Street, Chelsea, that he wears ill-fitting suits, the kind worn by a man who needs extra room in the waist, and that he pines for the one great lost love of his life, the peerless Lady Ann. Smiley’s admirers find the spy so credible that to this day they make pilgrimages to Cambridge Circus, 9 Bywater Street, the Battersea Bridge, and Hampstead Heath, just to walk in his footsteps.   

I also came to believe that Smiley’s success is based on more than his personal credibility. The Smiley series also rests on the enduring relevance of the world le Carré created around Smiley. When I began my project, I was curious if the books would feel outdated, remnants of a Cold War made obsolete by the fall of the Berlin Wall. To the contrary, I found the Smiley books anything but dated. Yes, the balances of power and the names of Cold War countries and cities have changed since the books were published, and, yes, the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie are long gone, but le Carré’s vision of a world corrupted by ideology, self-interest, and hypocrisy is absolutely in synch with the world we live in now. To survive, Smiley must navigate through a world full of enemies, not only among his opposite numbers in Moscow and Peking, but among his colleagues, his friends and even his lovers. I discovered that an overarching theme of the Smiley series is the eternal nature of betrayal. As le Carré observed when looking back at the Smiley novels, “Only betrayal, it seems, is timeless.” 

Splendid writing and a hero we can identify with, fighting an existential battle for survival in a treacherous world where the only constant is betrayal. 

Ladies and Gentlemen of the crime fiction jury, I submit to you that those are the ingredients for Smiley’s success.

Let’s review the evidence.

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1960s

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Call from the Dead (1961)

I consider the first Smiley novel, Call from the Dead, to be a must read for Smiley fans. The book not only introduces Smiley, but also the “Circus,” le Carré’s name for his fictionalized version of MI-6, located in London’s Cambridge Circus, as well as several essential recurring characters in the series: Peter Guillam, Inspector Mendel and the East German spy Hans Dieter-Mundt. The story opens with the death of a suspected East German spy whom Smiley was investigating. Fearing scandal, the Circus wants Smiley to sweep the death under the rug and classify it as suicide. Smiley refuses and quits the Circus—this would become another familiar theme—to solve the mystery on his own. Smiley pieces the puzzle of the killing together and the book ends with a deadly confrontation at the Battersea Bridge in London. Barely noticed upon publication, Call from the Dead was good enough to convince publishers to give Le Carré another chance, an opportunity the author said encouraged him to quit the intelligence services and take up writing full-time.  

A Murder of Quality (1962)

In A Murder of Quality, published in 1962, Smiley, still working outside the Circus, is asked by an old friend from “the war” to solve a mysterious death at an English boarding school, modeled after Eton where le Carré/Cornwall taught before becoming a British spy. This book is much more a murder mystery than an espionage novel and aficionados of Circus lore may think they can skip it. I would urge such readers to reconsider because the novel introduces a central recurring theme in the Smiley novels, namely the corrosive rot at the heart of British institutions. Apart from being a fine murder mystery, the book is also a ruthless critique of the British Public School system. By the end of Smiley’s run, Le Carré will have expanded his indictment to include nearly every institution on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) 

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was le Carré’s breakthrough novel and it is one of the finest spy novels I have ever read. The story opens in West Berlin at the gates of Checkpoint Charlie East and ends in East Berlin at the base of the Wall.  In between is a dazzling run of deception and betrayal that is often cited as the novel that “changed spy novels forever” by presenting spies not as James Bond clones but as all-too-human men and women. Smiley plays a supporting role in the book for “fieldman” Alec Leamas’ daring “double blind” operation behind East German lines to challenge his rival Hans Dieter-Mundt. 

Leamas spits out the book’s message to the lover he has betrayed, Liz Gold, and every word strikes like a slap to the face:  What do you think spies are: priests, saints, and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists, and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, I hate his guts; but not now. It so happens that they need him. They need him so that the great moronic mass that you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.”

Smiley’s role in this novel, may be small, but it is crucial and le Carré used the plot and characters of this book as the DNA for A Legacy of Spies, the last of the Smiley novels.

The Looking Glass War (1965)

With The Looking Glass War, le Carré tried to infuse satire into his espionage stories. Audiences roundly rejected the infusion. Readers who came to le Carre after the success of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold were put off by an account of a disastrous intelligence failure. Looking back, le Carré observed that he understood the source of the public rejection: “Never mind how many times they trip over their cloaks and leave their daggers on the train to Tonbridge, the spies can do no wrong.” In fairness to the audience, I too found the satire in this novel bone dry, and it’s hardly what I would describe as an entertaining read. If le Carré had concluded his Smiley novels here, then he would have other great successes as a writer, but George Smiley would not have been one of them.

Thankfully, Le Carré had other ideas for Smiley.

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1970s

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Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (1974)

This novel changed the game for Smiley and for le Carré, cementing the reputation of both author and character. In effect, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy re-invents George Smiley and the effect is breathtaking and far from ordinary. This novel brings Smiley to life by exquisitely detailing the outward trappings of the Circus, and letting readers track his methodology for catching spies. We watch as Smiley takes what he calls his “back bearings”—backtracking into cold intelligence files to follow the clues and find the lies that help him solve seemingly insoluble puzzles.             

Re-reading TTSS this year, I found myself swept up in the story again, seeing new details, finding new connections between the characters. In Smiley’s world, everyone lies—enemies, friends, lovers—and betrayals abound. The Circus itself has been comprised by a Russian agent—a “mole” in le Carré’s timeless expression—in the inner circle at the top of operations. Smiley is covertly brought in from forced retirement to find the mole. George is at the center of the story, but memorable characters appear throughout: Bill Haydon, Jim Prideaux, Ricky Tarr and Connie Sachs; to name a few. Smiley, face-to-face with Karla, his opposite number at Moscow Center, expresses his point of view with words that would hover over the entire Trilogy:

We’re getting to be old men, and we’ve spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems. I can see through Eastern values just as you can see through our Western ones. Both of us, I am sure, have experienced ad nauseam the technical satisfactions of this wretched war. But now your own side is going to shoot you. Don’t you think it’s time to recognize that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”

The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)

The longest of the Smiley novels opens with George assuming the seat of “Control”—head of Circus operations—after his unmasking of the mole in TTSS. Smiley’s probing gaze turns east following a lead he uncovers in Asia that, if followed, could expose Karla. The Honourable Schoolboy is set in exotic locations all over Southeast Asia—from Laos and Cambodia to the jungles of Thailand—during the chaos of the last days of American occupation of Vietnam. Smiley shares the spotlight with Jerry Westerby, the “fieldman” he has personally called back from retirement to uncover the source of Karla’s secret funds in Southeast Asia. 

This is the book where Smiley explains his methodology to his right and left hands, Connie Sachs and Peter Guillam—explaining how he will trace his former friend Bill Haydon’s betrayal of the Circus, and Smiley, to its source in Moscow Center:

“’We can take back bearings.’ By minutely charting Haydon’s path of destruction; by exhaustively recording his selection of files, by reassembling—after aching weeks of research, if necessary—the intelligence culled in good faith by Circus outstations, and balancing it, in every detail, against the intelligence distributed by Haydon to the Circus’ customers in the Whitehall market-place, it would be possible to take back-bearings (as Connie so rightly called them) and establish Haydon’s, and therefore Karla’s, point of departure.

Smiley and Westerby follow the trail to its point of departure in Hong Kong. The book ends with Smiley once again pushed out of the Circus and once again wondering if his ends justified his means. Some readers find THS overly long and some don’t care for the focus on Jerry Westerby. I disagree. From where I sit, THS is the closest le Carré—or anyone else—has come to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Jerry Westerby is one of le Carré’s finest creations. If you can stick with this book to the end, I promise that the final chapters of THS will break your heart.   

Smiley’s People (1979)

The final installment of the Karla Trilogy begins with a murder of a Russian asset, Vladimir, one of “Smiley’s People” when George ran intelligence in Moscow, and a call for Smiley to again return from retirement to investigate the killing. The Circus wants Smiley to sweep the murder under the rug—an echo of Call from the Dead—but Smiley has other ideas. Smiley commands center stage throughout and fans of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are certain to enjoy this book. Smiley follows the trail, backtracking from the murder of his friend in Hampstead Heath to Karla in Moscow Center. Smiley’s People brings the Karla trilogy to a close where A Spy Who Came In From the Cold opened, in Berlin at a pedestrian crossing over a river from East to West. At his moment of triumph, watching Karla crosses the bridge to surrender, Smiley reflects on the trail of ghosts behind him: 

“He thought again of Vladimir, or Otto Leipzig, and the dead Kirov; he thought of Haydon and his life’s work ruined; he thought of Ann, permanently stained for him by Karla’s cunning and Haydon’s scheming embrace. He recited in his despair a whole list of crimes—the tortures, the killings, the endless ring of corruption—to lay upon the frail shoulders of this one pedestrian on the bridge, but they would not stay there; he did not want these spoils, won by these methods.”

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Later Smiley

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The Secret Pilgrim (1990)

In The Secret Pilgrim, le Carré returned to Smiley after a long layoff, but in an oblique manner, using Smiley’s recollections as a jumping off point for the novel’s narrator, Ned York. Le Carré relies on this episodic format to fill in gaps in the overall Circus narrative. Like The Looking Glass War that it resembles, this is an accomplished book, rife with satire and it can be read and enjoyed on its own. But to me it is more an impersonal coda than a lively extension of the Smiley series. For years, Smiley fans thought this novel would be the last word on George. If they were like me, then they were a little disappointed; our hero had left the field with a whimper more than a bang.

But again, le Carré had other ideas. He was not ready to let Smiley go.

A Legacy of Spies (2017)

After nearly 20 years, Le Carré surprised—and delighted—his readers with the publication of A Legacy of Spies. Legacy now marks the final entry in the Smiley series and it makes a strong finish. With the passage of time, the old Circus headquarters are gone, but the deeds, and the misdeeds, that occurred there still linger. The narrator of the book is Smiley’s long suffering sidekick Peter Guillam—Dr. Watson to Smiley’s Holmes. Guillam is summoned from retirement in France to British Intelligence’s shiny new headquarters in London as part of a “truth and reconciliation” tribunal into the operation that led to the deaths of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold at the base of the Berlin Wall that Smiley and Guillam witnessed in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

There is little truth and less reconciliation as Guillam spars with sharp-tongued operatives posing as his allies. Here again betrayal of the most intimate kind is at the heart of story. A Legacy of Spies makes plain what I believe that the Smiley series had always been building towards—the knowledge that our most dangerous enemies are often our own allies, even our friends, blinded by ends that they believe justify any means necessary.

Smiley is mostly absent from the novel, but his spectral presence hovers over the story. To avoid being scapegoated, Guillam must use George’s methods and retrace the steps that led to the deaths in the Leamas operation, codenamed Windfall. At the end of the search, Guillam, acting on a lead from another Circus exile whose name I won’t reveal here, tracks Smiley to Freiberg, near the Black Forest in Germany, for one final interrogation. Guillam is looking for answers—he wants his old master to explain “Why did we do the things we did.” Smiley’s response encompasses the entire series of novels. Among the answers, Smiley tells Peter:

“‘Why did I do them? . . . For world peace, whatever that is? Yes, yes of course. There will be no war, but in the struggle for peace not a stone will be left standing, as our Russian friends used to say.’”

In the struggle for peace, no stone will be left standing. No principle will be left untarnished. No institution left unbloodied. 

That, Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, is the legacy of spies.

Putting the last book away, I exhaled. Perhaps no stone was left standing, but I take comfort knowing that le Carré left Peter Guillam standing, not unbloodied, but safe, for now, at a farmhouse on a hilltop in Brittany, with every approach covered. 

And I take comfort knowing that le Carré was able to summon George Smiley back to the stage for one final bow. Le Carré’s vision is so precise, and his power with words so profound, that even with the books closed and on my shelf, I can see the old master spy, living in self-imposed exile in Freiberg, deciphering German literature, walking alone in the Black Forest, and occasionally crossing borders to visit with other exiles in Paris, in Bern and in Cornwall. All the time, trying not to look too long over his shoulder at the trail of broken promises and broken lives behind him. Trying not to think too often about General Vladimir, Jerry Westerby, Alec Leamas, Bill Haydon or Lady Ann. 

And patiently waiting for the next betrayal.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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