About the Author
New York Times bestselling author John le Carré (A Delicate Truth and Spy Who Came in from the Cold) was born in 1931 and attended the universities of Bern and Oxford. He taught at Eton and served briefly in British Intelligence during the Cold War. For the last fifty years he has lived by his pen. He divides his time between London and Cornwall.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: How the Circus Left Town
Afterwards, in the dusty little corners where London's secret servants drink together, there was argument about where the Dolphin case history should really begin. One crowd, led by a blimpish fellow in charge of microphone transcription, went so far as to claim that the fitting date was some sixty years ago, when "that arch-cad Bill Haydon" was born into the world under a treacherous star. Haydon's very name struck a chill into them. It does so even today. For it was this same Haydon who, while still at Oxford, was recruited by Karla the Russian as a "mole" or "sleeper" or, in English, agent of penetration to work against them. And who with Karla's guidance entered their ranks and spied on them for thirty years or more. And whose eventual discovery thus the line of reasoning brought the British so low that they were forced into a fatal dependence upon their American sister service, whom they called in their own strange jargon "the Cousins." The Cousins changed the game entirely, said the blimpish fellow, much as he might have deplored power tennis or bodyline bowling. And ruined it too, said his seconds.
To less-flowery minds, the true genesis was Haydon's unmasking by George Smiley and Smiley's consequent appointment as caretaker chief of the betrayed service, which occurred in the late November of 1973. Once George had got Karla under his skin, they said, there was no stopping him; the rest was inevitable. Poor old George: but what a mind under all that burden!
One scholarly soul, a researcher of some sort in the jargon, a "burrower" even insisted, in his cups, upon January 26, 1841, as the natural date, when a certain Captain Elliot of the Royal Navy took a landing party to a fog-laden rock called Hong Kong at the mouth of the Pearl River and a few days later proclaimed it a British colony. With Elliot's arrival, said the scholar, Hong Kong became the headquarters of Britain's opium trade to China, and in consequence one of the pillars of the Imperial economy. If the British had not invented the opium market he said, not entirely serious then there would have been no case, no ploy, no dividend; and therefore no renaissance of the Circus following Bill Haydon's traitorous depredations.
Whereas the hard men the grounded fieldmen, the trainers, and the case officers who made their own murmured caucus always they saw the question solely in operational terms. They pointed to Smiley's deft footwork in tracking down Karla's paymaster in Vientiane; to Smiley's handling of the girl's parents; and to his wheeling and dealing with the reluctant barons of Whitehall, who held the operational purse strings and dealt out rights and permissions in the secret world. Above all, to the wonderful moment where he turned the operation round on its own axis. For these pros, the case was a victory of technique. Nothing more. They saw the shot-gun marriage with the Cousins as just another skilful bit of tradecraft in a long and delicate poker game. As to the final outcome: to hell. The king is dead, so long live the next one.
The debate continues wherever old comrades meet, though the name of Jerry Westerby, understandably, is seldom mentioned. Occasionally, it is true, somebody does, out of foolhardiness or sentiment or plain forgetfulness, dredge it up, and there is atmosphere for a moment; but it passes. Only the other day a young probationer just out of the Circus's refurbished training school at Sarratt in the jargon again, "the Nursery" piped it out in the under-thirties bar, for instance. A watered-down version of the Dolphin case had recently been introduced at Sarratt as material for syndicate discussion even playlets and the poor boy, still very green, was brimming with excitement to discover he was in the know. "But my God," he protested, enjoying the kind of fool's freedom sometimes granted to naval midshipmen in the wardroom, "my God, why does nobody seem to recognise Westerby's part in the affair? If anybody carried the load, it was Jerry Westerby. He was the spearhead. Well, wasn't he? Frankly?" Except, of course, he did not utter the name "Westerby," or "Jerry" either, not least because he did not know them; but used instead the cryptonym allocated to Jerry for the duration of the case.
Peter Guillam fielded this loose ball. Guillam is tall and tough and graceful, and probationers awaiting first posting tend to look up to him as some sort of Greek god.
"Westerby was the stick that poked the fire," he declared curtly, ending the silence. "Any fieldman would have done as well, some a damn sight better."
When the boy still did not take the hint, Guillam rose and went over to him and, very pale, snapped into his ear that he should fetch himself another drink, if he could hold it, and thereafter guard his tongue for several days or weeks. Whereupon the conversation returned once more to the topic of dear old George Smiley, surely the last of the true greats, and what was he doing with himself these days, back in retirement? So many lives he had led; so much to recollect in tranquillity, they agreed.
"George went five times round the moon to our one," someone declared loyally, a woman.
Ten times, they agreed. Twenty! Fifty! With hyperbole, Westerby's shadow mercifully receded. As in a sense, so did George Smiley's. Well, George had a marvellous innings, they would say. At his age what could you expect?
Perhaps a more realistic point of departure is a certain typhoon Saturday in mid-1974, three o'clock in the afternoon, when Hong Kong lay battened down waiting for the next onslaught. In the bar of the Foreign Correspondents' Club, a score of journalists, mainly from former British colonies Australian, Canadian, American fooled and drank in a mood of violent idleness, a chorus without a hero. Thirteen floors below them, the old trams and double-deckers were caked in the mud-brown sweat of building dust and smuts from the chimney stacks in Kowloon. The tiny ponds outside the high-rise hotels prickled with slow, subversive rain. And in the men's room, which provided the Club's best view of the harbour, young Luke, the Californian, was ducking his face into the hand-basin, washing the blood from his mouth.
Luke was a wayward, gangling tennis player, an old man of twenty-seven who, until the American pull-out, had been the star turn in his magazine's Saigon stable of war reporters. When you knew he played tennis, it was hard to think of him doing anything else, even drinking. You imagined him at the net, uncoiling and smashing everything to kingdom come; or serving aces between double faults. His mind, as he sucked and spat, was fragmented by drink and mild concussion Luke would probably have used the war word "fragged" into several lucid parts. One part was occupied with a Wanchai bar-girl called Ella, for whose sake he had punched the pig policeman on the jaw and suffered the inevitable consequences. With the minimum necessary force, Superintendent Rockhurst, known otherwise as "the Rocker," who was this minute relaxing in a corner of the bar after his exertions, had knocked Luke cold and kicked him smartly in the ribs. Another part of Luke's mind was on something his Chinese landlord had said to him this morning when he called to complain of the noise of Luke's gramophone, and had stayed to drink a beer.
A scoop of some sort, definitely. But what sort?
He retched again, then peered out of the window. The junks were lashed behind the barriers and the Star Ferry had stopped running. A veteran British frigate lay at anchor, and Club rumours said Whitehall was selling it.
"Should be putting to sea," he muttered confusedly, recalling some bit of naval lore he had picked up in his travels. "Frigates put to sea in typhoons. Yes, sir."
The hills were slate under the stacks of black cloud-bank. Six months ago, the sight would have had him cooing with pleasure. The harbour, the din, even the skyscraper shanties that clambered from the sea's edge upwards to the Peak: after Saigon, Luke had ravenously embraced the whole scene. But all he saw today was a smug, rich British rock run by a bunch of plum-throated traders whose horizons went no farther than their belly-lines. The colony had therefore become for him exactly what it was already for the rest of the journalists: an airfield, a telephone, a laundry, a bed. Occasionally but never for long a woman. Where even experience had to be imported. As to the wars which for so long had been his addiction, they were as remote from Hong Kong as they were from London or New York. Only the Stock Exchange showed a token sensibility, and on Saturdays it was closed anyway.
"Think you're going to live, ace?" asked the shaggy Canadian cowboy, coming to the stall beside him. The two men had shared the pleasures of the Tet offensive.
"Thank you, dear, I feel perfectly topping," Luke replied, in his most exalted English accent.
Luke decided it really was important for him to remember what Jake Chiu had said to him over the beer this morning, and suddenly, like a gift from heaven, it came to him.
"I remember!" he shouted. "Jesus, cowboy, I remember! Luke, you remember! My brain! It works! Folks, give ear to Luke!"
"Forget it," the cowboy advised. "That's badland out there today, ace. Whatever it is, forget it."
But Luke kicked open the door and charged into the bar, arms flung wide.
"Hey! Hey! Folks!"
Not a head turned. Luke cupped his hands to his mouth.
"Listen, you drunken bums, I got news. This is fantastic. Two bottles of Scotch a day and a brain like a razor. Someone give me a bell."
Finding none, he grabbed a tankard and hammered it on the bar rail, spilling the beer. Even then, only the dwarf paid him the slightest notice.
"So what's happened, Lukie?" whined the dwarf, in his queeny Greenwich Village drawl. "Has Big Moo gotten hiccups again? I can't bear it."
Big Moo was Club jargon for the Governor, and the dwarf was Luke's chief of bureau. He was a pouchy, sullen creature, with disordered hair that wept in black strands over his face, and a silent way of popping up beside you. A year back, two Frenchmen, otherwise rarely seen there, had nearly killed him for a chance remark he had made on the origins of the mess in Vietnam. They took him to the lift, broke his jaw and several of his ribs, then dumped him in a heap on the ground floor and came back to finish their drinks. Soon afterwards the Australians did a similar job on him when he made a silly accusation about their token military involvement in the war. He suggested that Canberra had done a deal with President Johnson to keep the Australian boys in Vung Tau, which was a picnic, while the Americans did the real fighting elsewhere. Unlike the French, the Australians didn't even bother to use the lift. They just beat the hell out of the dwarf where he stood, and when he fell they added a little more of the same. After that, he learned when to keep clear of certain people in Hong Kong. In times of persistent fog, for instance. Or when the water was cut to four hours a day. Or on a typhoon Saturday.
Otherwise the Club was pretty much empty. For reasons of prestige, the top correspondents steered clear of the place anyway. A few businessmen, who came for the flavour pressmen give; a few girls, who came for the men. A couple of war tourists in fake battle-drill. And in his customary corner, the awesome Rocker, Superintendent of Police, ex-Palestine, ex-Kenya, ex-Malaya, ex-Fiji, an implacable war-horse, with a beer, one set of slightly reddened knuckles, and a weekend copy of the South China Morning Post. The Rocker, people said, came for the class.
At the big table at the centre, which on weekdays was the preserve of United Press International, lounged the Shanghai Junior Baptist Conservative Bowling Club, presided over by mottled old Craw, the Australian, enjoying its usual Saturday tournament. The aim of the contest was to pitch a screwed-up napkin across the room and lodge it in the wine rack. Every time you succeeded, your competitors bought you the bottle and helped you drink it. Old Craw growled the orders to fire, and an elderly Shanghainese waiter, Craw's favourite, wearily manned the butts and served the prizes. The game was not a zestful one that day, and some members were not bothering to throw. Nevertheless this was the group Luke selected for his audience.
"Big Moo's wife's got hiccups!" the dwarf insisted. "Big Moo's wife's horse has got hiccups! Big Moo's wife's horse's groom's got hiccups! Big Moo's wife's horse's "
Striding to the table, Luke leapt straight onto it with a crash, breaking several glasses and cracking his head on the ceiling in the process. Framed up there against the south window in a half-crouch, he was out of scale to everyone: the dark mist, the dark shadow of the Peak behind it, and this giant filling the whole foreground. But they went on pitching and drinking as if they hadn't seen him. Only the Rocker glanced in Luke's direction, once, before licking a huge thumb and turning to the cartoon page.
"Round three," Craw ordered, in his rich Australian accent. "Brother Canada, prepare to fire. Wait, you slob. Fire."
A screwed-up napkin floated toward the rack, taking a high trajectory. Finding a cranny, it hung a moment, then flopped to the ground. Egged on by the dwarf, Luke began stamping on the table and more glasses fell. Finally he wore his audience down.
"Your Graces," said old Craw, with a sigh. "Pray silence for my son. I fear he would have parley with us. Brother Luke, you have committed several acts of war today and one more will meet with our severe disfavour. Speak clearly and concisely omitting no detail, however slight, and thereafter hold your water, sir."
In their tireless pursuit of legends about one another, old Craw was their Ancient Mariner. Craw had shaken more sand out of his shorts, they told each other, than most of them would walk over; and they were right. In Shanghai, where his career had started, he had been teaboy and city editor to the only English-speaking journal in the port. Since then, he had covered the Communists against Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang against the Japanese and the Americans against practically everyone. Craw gave them a sense of history in this rootless place. His style of speech, which at typhoon times even the hardiest might pardonably find irksome, was a genuine hangover from the thirties, when Australia provided the bulk of journalists in the Orient, and the Vatican, for some reason, the jargon of their companionship.
So Luke, thanks to old Craw, finally got it out.
"Gentlemen! Dwarf, you damn Polack, let go of my foot! Gentlemen." He paused to dab his mouth with a handkerchief. "The house known as High Haven is for sale and His Grace Tufty Thesinger has flown the coop."
Nothing happened, but he didn't expect much anyway. Journalists are not given to cries of amazement or even incredulity.
"High Haven," Luke repeated sonorously, "is up for grabs. Mr. Jake Chiu, the well-known and popular real-estate entrepreneur, more familiar to you as my personal irate landlord, has been charged by Her Majesty's majestic government to dispose of High Haven. To wit, peddle. Let me go, you Polish bastard, I'll kill you!"
The dwarf had toppled him. Only a flailing, agile leap saved him from injury. From the floor, Luke hurled more abuse at his assailant. Meanwhile, Craw's large head had turned to Luke, and his moist eyes fixed on him a baleful stare that seemed to go on forever. Luke began to wonder which of Craw's many laws he might have sinned against. Beneath his various disguises, Craw was a complex and solitary figure, as everyone round the table knew. Under the willed roughness of his manner lay a love of the East which seemed sometimes to string him tighter than he could stand, so that there were months when he would disappear from sight altogether and, like a sulky elephant, go off on his private paths until he was once more fit to live with.
"Don't burble, Your Grace, do you mind?" said Craw at last, and tilted back his big head imperiously. "Refrain from spewing low-grade bilge into highly salubrious water, will you, Squire? High Haven's the spookhouse. Been the spookhouse for years. Lair of the lynx-eyed Major Tufty Thesinger, formerly of Her Majesty's Rifles, presently Hong Kong's Lestrade of the Yard. Tufty wouldn't fly the coop. He's a hood, not a tit. Give my son a drink, Monsignor" this to the Shanghainese barman "he's wandering."
Craw intoned another fire order and the Club returned to its intellectual pursuits. The truth was, there was little new to these great spy scoops by Luke. He had a long reputation as a failed spook-watcher, and his leads were invariably disproved. Since Vietnam, the stupid lad saw spies under every carpet. He believed the world was run by them, and much of his spare time, when he was sober, was spent hanging round the Colony's numberless battalions of thinly disguised China-watchers, and worse, who infested the enormous American Consulate up the hill. So if it hadn't been such a listless day, the matter would probably have rested there. As it was, the dwarf saw an opening to amuse, and seized it.
"Tell us, Lukie," he suggested, with a queer upward twisting of the hands, "are they selling High Haven with contents or as found?"
The question won him a round of applause. Was High Haven worth more with its secrets or without?
"Do they sell it with Major Thesinger?" the South African photographer pursued, in his humourless singsong, and there was more laughter still, though it was no more affectionate. The photographer was a disturbing figure, crew cut and starved, and his complexion was pitted like the battlefields he loved to haunt. He came from Cape Town, but they called him Deathwish the Hun. The saying was, he would bury all of them, for he stalked them like a mute.
For several diverting minutes now, Luke's point was lost entirely under a spate of Major Thesinger stories and Major Thesinger imitations, in which all but Craw joined. It was recalled that the Major had made his first appearance in the Colony as an importer, with some fatuous cover down among the docks; only to transfer, six months later, quite improbably, to the services' list and, complete with his staff of pallid clerks and doughy, well-bred secretaries, decamp to the said spookhouse as somebody's replacement.
In particular, the Major's tête-à-tête luncheons were described, to which, as it now turned out, practically every journalist listening had at one time or another been invited. And which ended with laborious proposals over brandy, including such wonderful phrases as: "Now, look here, old man, if you should ever bump into an interesting Chow from over the river, you know one with access, follow me? just you remember High Haven!" Then the magic telephone number the one that "rings spot on my desk, no middle men, tape-recorders, nothing, right?" which a good half-dozen of them seemed to have in their diaries: "Here, pencil this one on your cuff; pretend it's a date or a girl-friend or something. Ready for it? Hong Kong-side five zero two four..."
Having chanted the digits in unison, they fell quiet. Somewhere a clock chimed for three-fifteen. Luke slowly stood up and brushed the dust from his jeans. The old Shanghainese waiter gave up his post by the racks and reached for the menu, in the hope that someone might eat. For a moment, uncertainty overcame them. The day was forfeit. It had been so since the first gin.
In the background, a low growl sounded as the Rocker ordered himself a generous luncheon: "And bring me a cold beer, cold, you hear, boy? Muchee coldee. Chop chop." The Superintendent had his way with natives and said this every time. The quiet returned.
"Well, there you are, Lukie," the dwarf called, moving away. "That's how you win your Pulitzer, I guess. Congratulations, darling. Scoop of the year."
"Ah, go impale yourselves, the bunch of you," said Luke carelessly and started to make his way down the bar to where two sallow blond girls sat, army daughters on the prowl. "Jake Chiu showed me the damn letter of instruction, didn't he? On Her Majesty's damn Service, wasn't it? Damn crest on the top, lion screwing a goat. Hi, sweethearts, remember me? I'm the kind man who bought you the lollipops at the fair."
"Thesinger don't answer," Deathwish the Hun sang mournfully from the telephone. "Nobody don't answer. Not Thesinger, not his duty man. They disconnected the line." In the excitement, or the monotony, no one had noticed Deathwish slip away.
Till now, old Craw the Australian had lain dead as a dodo. Now he looked up sharply.
"Dial it again, you fool," he ordered, tart as a drill sergeant.
With a shrug, Deathwish dialled Thesinger's number a second time, and a couple of them went to watch him do it. Craw stayed put, watching from where he sat. There were two instruments. Deathwish tried the second, but with no better result.
"Ring the operator," Craw ordered across the room to them. "Don't stand there like a pregnant banshee. Ring the operator, you African ape!"
Number disconnected, said the operator.
"Since when, man?" Deathwish demanded, into the mouthpiece.
No information available, said the operator.
"Maybe they got a new number then, right, man?" Deathwish howled, still at the luckless operator. No one had ever seen him so involved. Life for Deathwish was what happened at the end of a viewfinder: such passion was only attributable to the typhoon.
No information available, said the operator.
"Ring Shallow Throat," Craw ordered, now quite furious. "Ring every damned striped-pants in the Colony!"
Deathwish shook his long head uncertainly. Shallow Throat was the official government spokesman, a hate-object to them all. To approach him for anything was bad face.
"Here, give him to me," said Craw and, rising to his feet, shoved them aside to get to the phone and embark on the lugubrious courtship of Shallow Throat. "Your devoted Craw, sir, at your service. How's Your Eminence in mind and health? Charmed, sir, charmed. And the wife and veg, sir? All eating well, I trust? No scurvy or typhus? Good. Well now, perhaps you'll have the benison to advise me why the hell Tufty Thesinger's flown the coop?"
They watched him, but his face had set like rock, and there was nothing more to read there.
"And the same to you, sir!" he snorted finally, and slammed the phone back on its cradle so hard the whole table bounced. Then he turned to the old Shanghainese waiter. "Monsignor Goh, sir, order me a petrol donkey and oblige! Your Graces, get off your arses, the pack of you!"
"What the hell for?" said the dwarf, hoping to be included in the command.
"For a story, you snotty little Cardinal, for a story, Your lecherous, alcoholic Eminences. For wealth, fame, women, and longevity!"
His black mood was indecipherable to any of them.
"But what did Shallow Throat say that was so damn bad?" the shaggy Canadian cowboy asked, mystified.
The dwarf echoed him. "Yeah, so what did he say, Brother Craw?"
"He said, 'No comment,'" Craw replied with fine dignity, as if the words were the vilest slur upon his professional honour.
So up the Peak they went, leaving only the silent majority of drinkers to their peace: restive Deathwish the Hun went, long Luke, then the shaggy Canadian cowboy, very striking in his Mexican revolutionary moustache, the dwarf, attaching as ever, and finally old Craw and the two army girls a plenary session of the Shanghai Junior Baptist Conservative Bowling Club, therefore, with ladies added, though the Club was sworn to celibacy. Amazingly, the jolly Cantonese driver took them all, a triumph of exuberance over physics. He even consented to give three receipts for the full fare, one for each of the journals represented, a thing no Hong Kong taxi-driver had been known to do before or since. It was a day to break all precedents. Old Craw sat in the front wearing his famous soft straw hat with Eton colours on the ribbon, bequeathed to him by an old comrade in his will. The dwarf was squeezed over the gear lever, the other three men sat in the back, and the two girls sat on Luke's lap, which made it hard for him to dab his mouth.
The Rocker did not see fit to join them. He had tucked his napkin into his collar in preparation for the Club's roast lamb and mint sauce and a lot of potatoes: "And another beer! But cold this time hear that, boy? Muchee coldee, and bring it chop chop."
But once the coast was clear, the Rocker also made use of the telephone, and spoke to Someone in Authority, just to be on the safe side, though they agreed there was nothing to be done.
The taxi was a red Mercedes, quite new, but nowhere kills a car faster than the Peak, climbing at no speed forever, air-conditioners at full blast. The weather continued awful. As the car sobbed slowly up the concrete cliffs, they were engulfed by a fog thick enough to choke on. When they got out, it was even worse. A hot, unbudgeable curtain had spread itself across the summit, reeking of petrol and crammed with the din of the valley. The moisture floated in hot fine swarms. On a clear day they would have had a view both ways, one of the loveliest on earth: northward to Kowloon and the blue mountains of the New Territories, which hid from sight the eight hundred million Chinese who lacked the privilege of British rule; southward to Repulse and Deep Water Bays and the open China Sea. High Haven, after all, had been built by the Royal Navy in the twenties in all the grand innocence of that service, to receive and impart a sense of power.
But that afternoon, if the house had not been set among the trees, and in a hollow where the trees grew tall in their effort to reach the sky, and if the trees had not kept the fog out, they would have had nothing to look at but the two white concrete pillars one bearing bell buttons marked "DAY" and "NIGHT" and the chained gates they supported. Thanks to the trees, however, they saw the house clearly, though it was set back fifty yards. They could pick out the drain-pipes, fire-escapes, and washing lines and they could admire the green dome which the Japanese army had added during their four years' tenancy.
Hurrying to the front in his desire to be accepted, the dwarf pressed the bell marked "DAY." A speaker was let into the pillar and they all stared at it, waiting for it to say something or, as Luke would have it, puff out pot-smoke. At the roadside, the Cantonese driver had switched on his radio full, and it was playing a whining Chinese love song, on and on. The second pillar was blank except for a brass plate announcing the Inter Services Liaison Staff, Thesinger's threadbare cover. Deathwish the Hun had produced a camera and was photographing as methodically as if he were on one of his native battlefields.
"Maybe they don't work Saturdays," Luke suggested while they continued to wait, at which Craw told him not to be bloody silly; spooks worked seven days a week and round the clock, he said. Also they never ate, apart from Tufty.
"Good afternoon to you," said the dwarf.
Pressing the night bell, he had put his twisted red lips to the vents of the speaker and affected an upper-class English accent, which, to give him credit, he managed surprisingly well.
"My name is Michael Hanbury-Steadly-Heamoor, and I'm personal bumboy to Big Moo. I should like, pliss, to speak to Major Thesinger on a matter of some urgency, pliss. There is a mushroom-shaped cloud the Major may not have noticed; it appearce to be forming over the Pearl River and it's spoiling Big Moo's golf. Thenk you. Will you kindly open the gate?"
One of the blond girls gave a titter.
"I didn't know he was a Steadly-Heamoor," she said.
Abandoning Luke, they had tethered themselves to the shaggy Canadian's arm, and spent a lot of time whispering in his ear.
"He's Rasputin," said one of the girls admiringly, stroking the back of his thigh. "I've seen the film. He's the spitten image, aren't you, Canada?"
Now everybody had a drink from Luke's flask while they regrouped and wondered what to do. From the direction of the parked cab, the driver's Chinese love song continued dauntlessly, but the speakers on the pillars said nothing at all. The dwarf pressed both bells at once, and tried an Al Capone threat.
"Now see here, Thesinger, we know you're in there. You come out with your hands raised, uncloaked, throw down your daggers Hey, watch it, you stupid cow!"
The imprecation was addressed neither to the Canadian nor to old Craw who was sidling toward the trees, apparently to meet a call of nature but to Luke, who had decided to beat his way into the house. The gateway stood in a muddy service bay sheltered by dripping trees. On the far side was a pile of refuse, some new. Sauntering over to this in search of an illuminating clue, Luke had unearthed a piece of pig-iron made in the shape of an "S." Having carted it to the gate, though it must have weighed thirty pounds or more, he was holding it two-handed above his head and driving it against the staves, at which the gate tolled like a cracked bell.
Deathwish had sunk to one knee, his hollowed face clawed into a martyr's smile as he shot.
"Counting five, Tufty!" Luke yelled, with another shattering heave. "One..." He struck again. "Two..."
Overhead an assorted flock of birds, some very large, lifted out of the trees and flew in slow spirals, but the thunder of the valley and the boom of the gate drowned their screams. The taxi-driver was dancing about, clapping and laughing, his love song forgotten. Stranger still, in view of the menacing weather, an entire Chinese family appeared, pushing not one pram but two, and they began laughing, also even the smallest child holding their hands across their mouths to conceal their teeth. Till suddenly the Canadian cowboy let out a cry, shook off the girls, and pointed through the gates.
"For Lord's sakes, what the heck's Craw doing? Old buzzard's jumped the wire."
By now, whatever sense of normal scale there might have been had vanished. A collective madness had seized everyone. The drink, the black day, the claustrophobia had gone to their heads entirely. The girls fondled the Canadian with abandon, Luke continued his hammering, the Chinese were hooting with laughter, until with divine timeliness the fog lifted, temples of blue-black cloud soared directly above them, and a torrent of rain crashed into the trees. A second longer and it hit them, drenching them in the first swoop. The girls, suddenly half naked, flew laughing and shrieking for the Mercedes, but the male ranks held firm even the dwarf held firm staring through the films of water at the unmistakeable figure of the old Australian in his Etonian hat, standing in the shelter of the house under a rough porch that looked as if it were made for bicycles, though no one but a lunatic would bicycle up the Peak.
"Craw!" they screamed. "Monsignor! The bastard's scooped us!"
The din of the rain was deafening; the branches seemed to be cracking under its force. Luke had thrown aside his mad hammer. The shaggy cowboy went first, Luke and the dwarf followed, Deathwish with his smile and his camera brought up the tail, crouching and hobbling as he continued photographing blindly. The rain poured off them as it wanted, sloshing in red rivulets round their ankles as they pursued Craw's trail up a slope where the screech of bullfrogs added to the row. They scaled a bracken ridge, slithered to a halt before a barbed-wire fence, clambered through the parted strands, and crossed a low ditch. By the time they reached him, Craw was gazing at the green cupola, while the rain despite the straw hat ran busily off his jaw, turning his trim fawn suit into a blackened, shapeless tunic. He stood as if mesmerised, staring upward.
Luke, who loved him best, spoke first. "Your Grace? Hey, wake up! It's me Romeo. Jesus Christ, what the hell's eating him?"
Suddenly concerned, Luke gently touched his arm. But still Craw didn't speak.
"Maybe he died standing up," the dwarf suggested, while grinning Deathwish photographed him on this happy off chance.
Like an old prize-fighter, Craw slowly rallied. "Brother Luke, we owe you a handsome apology, sir," he muttered.
"Get him back to the cab," said Luke, and began clearing a way for him, but the old boy refused to move.
"Tufty Thesinger. A good scout. Not a flyer not sly enough for flight but a good scout."
"Tufty Thesinger rest in peace," said Luke impatiently. "Let's go. Dwarf, move your ass."
"He's stoned," said the cowboy.
"Consider the clues, Watson," Craw resumed, after another pause for meditation, while Luke tugged at his arm and the rain came on still faster. "Remark first the empty cages over the window, whence air-conditioners have been untimely ripped. Parsimony, my son, a commendable virtue especially, if I may say so, in a spook. Notice the dome there? Study it carefully, sir. Scratch marks. Not, alas, the footprints of a gigantic hound, but the scratch marks of wireless aerials removed by the frantic hand of round-eyes. Ever heard of a spookhouse without a wireless aerial? Might as well have a cathouse without a piano."
The rainfall had reached a crescendo. Huge drops thumped around them like shot. Craw's face was a mix of things Luke could only guess at. Deep in his heart it occurred to him that Craw really might be dying. Luke had seen little of natural death, and was very much on the alert for it.
"Maybe they just got rock-fever and split," he said, trying again to coax him to the car.
"Very possibly, Your Grace, very possibly indeed. It is certainly the season for rash, ungovernable acts."
"Home," said Luke, and pulled firmly at his arm. "Make a path there, will you? Stretcher party."
But the old man still lingered stubbornly for a last look at the English spookhouse flinching in the storm.
The Canadian cowboy filed first, and his piece deserved a better fate. He wrote it that night, while the girls slept in his bed. He guessed the story would go best as a magazine piece rather than straight news, so he built it round the Peak in general and only used Thesinger as a peg. He explained how the Peak was traditionally Hong Kong's Olympus "the higher you lived on it, the higher you stood in society" and how the rich British opium traders, Hong Kong's founding fathers, fled there to avoid the cholera and fever of the town; how even a couple of decades ago a person of Chinese race required a pass before he could set foot there. He described the history of High Haven, and lastly its reputation, fostered by the Chinese-language press, as a witches' kitchen of British Imperialist plots against Mao. Overnight the kitchen had closed and the cooks had vanished.
"Another conciliatory gesture?" he asked. "Appeasement? All part of Britain's low-profile policy toward the mainland? Or simply one more sign that in South East Asia, as everywhere else in the world, the British were having to come down from their mountaintop?"
His mistake was to select a heavy English Sunday paper, which occasionally ran his pieces. The D notice forbidding all reference to these events was there ahead of him. "REGRET YOUR NICE HAVENSTORY UNPLACED," the editor cabled, and shoved it straight on the spike. A few days later, returning to his room, the cowboy found it ransacked. Also, for several weeks his telephone developed a sort of laryngitis, so that he never used it without including an obscene reference to Big Moo and his retinue.
Luke went home full of ideas, bathed, drank a lot of black coffee, and set to work. He telephoned airlines, government contacts, and a whole host of pale, over-brushed acquaintances in the U.S. Consulate, who infuriated him with arch and Delphic answers. He pestered furniture-removal firms which specialised in handling government contracts. By ten that night, he had, in his own words to the dwarf, whom he also telephoned several times, "proof-cooked five different ways" that Thesinger, his wife, and all the staff of High Haven had left Hong Kong by charter in the early hours of Thursday morning, bound for London. Thesinger's boxer dog, he learned by a happy chance, would follow by air cargo later in the week. Having made a few notes, Luke crossed the room, settled to his typewriter, bashed out a few lines, and dried up, as he knew he would.
He began in a rush, fluently: "Today a fresh cloud of scandal hangs over the embattled and non-elected government of Britain's one remaining Asian colony. Hot on the latest revelations of graft in the police and civil service comes word that the Island's most hush-hush establishment, High Haven, base for Britain's cloak-and-dagger ploys against Red China, has been summarily shut down."
There, with a blasphemous sob of impotence, he stopped and pressed his face into his open hands. Nightmares: those he could stand. To wake, after so much war, shaking and sweating from unspeakable visions, with his nostrils filled with the stink of napalm on human flesh: in a way, it was a consolation to him to know that after all that pressing down, the floodgates of his feeling had burst. There had been times, experiencing those things, when he longed for the leisure to recover his powers of disgust. If nightmares were necessary in order to restore him to the ranks of normal men and women, then he could embrace them with gratitude. But not in the worst of his nightmares had it occurred to him that having written the war, he might not be able to write the peace. For six night hours, Luke fought with this awful deadness. Sometimes he thought of old Craw, standing there with the rain running off him, delivering his funeral oration: maybe that was the story? But whoever hung a story on the strange humour of a fellow hack?
Nor did the dwarf's own hashed-out version meet with much success, which made him very scratchy. On the face of it, the story had everything they asked for. It spoofed the British, it had spy written large, and for once it got away from the notion of America as the hangman of South East Asia. But all he had for a reply, after a five-day wait, was a terse instruction to stay on his rostrum and leave off trying to play the trumpet.
Which left old Craw. Though a mere side-show by comparison with the thrust of the main action, the timing of what Craw did, and did not do, remains to this day impressive. He filed nothing for three weeks. There was small stuff he should have handled but he didn't bother. To Luke, who was seriously concerned for him, he seemed at first to continue his mysterious decline. He lost his bounce and his love of fellowship entirely. He became snappish and at times downright unkind, and he barked bad Cantonese at the waiters even at his favourite, Goh. He treated the Shanghai Bowlers as if they were his worst enemies, and recalled alleged slights they had long forgotten. Sitting alone at his window-seat, he was like an old boulevardier fallen on hard times, waspish, inward, slothful.
Then one day he disappeared, and when Luke called apprehensively at his apartment the old amah told him that "Whisky Papa runrun London fastee." She was a strange little creature and Luke was inclined to doubt her. A dull North German stringer for Der Spiegel reported sighting Craw in Vientiane, carousing at the Constellation bar, but again Luke wondered. Craw-watching had always been something of an insider sport, and there was prestige in adding to the general fund.
Till a Monday came, and around midday the old boy strolled into the Club wearing a new beige suit and a very fine buttonhole, all smiles and anecdotes once more, and went to work on the High Haven story. He spent money, more than his paper would normally have allowed him. He ate several jovial lunches with well-dressed Americans from vaguely titled United States agencies, some of them known to Luke. Wearing his famous straw hat, he took each separately to quiet, well-chosen restaurants. In the Club, he was reviled for diplomat-crawling, a grave crime, and this pleased him.
Next, a China-watchers' conference summoned him to Tokyo, and with hindsight it is fair to assume he used that visit to check out other parts of the story that was shaping for him. Certainly he asked old friends at the conference to unearth bits of fact for him when they got home to Bangkok, or Singapore, or Taipei, or wherever they came from, and they obliged because they knew he would have done the same for them. In an eerie way, he seemed to know what he was looking for before they found it.
The result appeared in its fullest version in a Sydney morning newspaper, which was beyond the long arm of Anglo-American censorship. By common consent, it recalled the master's vintage years. It ran to two thousand words. Typically, he did not lead with the High Haven story at all, but with the "mysteriously empty wing" of the British Embassy in Bangkok, which till a month ago had housed a strange body called the Seato Co-ordination Unit, as well as a Visa Section boasting six second secretaries. Was it the pleasures of the Soho massage parlours, the old Australian enquired sweetly, which lured the Thais to Britain in such numbers that six second secretaries were needed to handle their visa applications? Strange too, he mused, that since their departure and the closure of that wing, long queues of aspirant travellers had not formed outside the Embassy.
Gradually he wrote at ease, but never carelessly a surprising picture unfolded before his readers. He called British intelligence "the Circus." He said the name derived from the address of that organisation's secret headquarters, which overlooked a famous intersection of London streets. The Circus had not merely pulled out of High Haven, he said, but out of Bangkok, Singapore, Saigon, Tokyo, Manila, and Djakarta as well. And Seoul. Even solitary Taiwan was not immune, where an unsung British Resident was discovered to have shed three clerk-drivers and two secretarial assistants only a week before the article went to press.
"A hoods' Dunkirk," Craw called it, "in which charter DC-3s replaced the Kentish fishing fleets."
What had prompted such an exodus? Craw offered several nimble theories. Were we witnessing yet one more cut in British government spending? The writer was sceptical. In times of travail, Britain's tendency was to rely more, not less, on spies. Her entire Empire history urged her to do so. The thinner her trade routes, the more elaborate her clandestine efforts to protect them. The more feeble her colonial grip, the more desperate her subversion of those who sought to loosen it. No: Britain might be on the breadline, but the spies would be the last of her luxuries to go. Craw set up other possibilities and knocked them down. A gesture of détente toward mainland China? he suggested, echoing the cowboy's point. Certainly Britain would do anything under the sun to keep Hong Kong clear of Mao's anti-colonial zeal short of giving up her spies.
Thus old Craw arrived at the theory he liked best: "Right across the Far Eastern chequerboard," he wrote, "the Circus is performing what is known in the spy-trade as a duck-dive."
The writer now quoted his "senior American prebends of the intelligence church militant in Asia." American intelligence agents generally, he said, and not just in Asia, were "hopping mad about lax security in the British organisations." They were hopping highest about the recent discovery of a top Russian spy he threw in the correct trade name of "mole" inside the Circus's London headquarters: a British traitor, whom they declined to name, but who, in the words of the senior prebends, had "compromised every Anglo-American clandestine operation worth a dime for the last twenty years." Where was the mole now? the writer had asked his sources. To which, with undiminished spleen, they had replied: "Dead. In Russia. And hopefully both."
Craw had never wanted for a wrap-up, but this one, to Luke's fond eye, had a real sense of ceremony about it. It was almost an assertion of life itself, if only of the secret life:
"Is Kim, the boy spy, vanished for good, then, from the legends of the East?" he asked. "Shall the English pundit never again stain his skin, slip into native costume, and silently take his place beside the village fires? Do not fear," he insisted, "the British will be back! The time-honoured sport of spot-the-spook will be with us once again! The spy is not dead: he sleepeth."
The piece appeared. In the Club, it was fleetingly admired, envied, forgotten. A local English-language paper with strong American connections reprinted it in full, with the result that the mayfly, after all, enjoyed another day of life. The old boy's charity benefit, they said: a doffing of the cap before he passes from the stage. Then the overseas network of the B.B.C. ran it, and finally the Colony's own torpid radio network ran a version of the B.B.C.'s version, and for a full day there was debate about whether Big Moo had decided to take the muzzle off the local news services. Yet even with this protracted billing, nobody not Luke, not even the dwarf saw fit to wonder how the devil the old man had known the back way into High Haven.
Which merely proved, if proof were ever needed, that journalists are no quicker than anybody else at spotting what goes on under their noses. It was a typhoon Saturday, after all.
Within the Circus itself, as Craw had correctly called the seat of British intelligence, reactions to Craw's piece varied according to how much was known by those who were doing the reacting. In Housekeeping Section, for instance, which was responsible for such tatters of cover as the Circus could gather to itself these days, the old boy released a wave of pent-up fury that can only be understood by those who have tasted the atmosphere of a secret department under heavy siege. Even otherwise tolerant spirits became savagely retributive. Treachery! Breach of contract! Block his pension! Put him on the watch list! Prosecution the moment he returns to England!
Down the market a little, those less rabid about their security took a kindlier view, though it was still uninformed. Well, well, they said a little ruefully, that was the way of it; name us a joe who didn't blow his top now and then, and specially one who'd been left in ignorance for as long as poor old Craw had. And after all, he'd disclosed nothing that wasn't generally available, now had he? Really, those housekeeper people should show a little moderation. Look how they went for poor Molly Meakin the other night, sister to Mike and hardly out of ribbons, just because she left a bit of blank stationery in her waste basket!
Only those at the inmost point saw things differently. To them, old Craw's article was a discreet masterpiece of disinformation; George Smiley at his best, they said. Clearly, the story had to come out, and all were agreed that censorship at any time was objectionable. Much better therefore to let it come out in the manner of our choosing. The right timing, the right amount, the right tone: a lifetime's experience, they agreed, in every brush-stroke. But that was not a view which passed outside their set.
Back in Hong Kong clearly, said the Shanghai Bowlers, the old boy, like the dying, had had a prophetic instinct of this Craw's High Haven story turned out to be his swan-song. A month after it appeared, he had retired, not from the Colony but from his trade as a scribbler and from the Island too. Renting a cottage in the New Territories, he announced that he proposed to expire under a slant-eye heaven. For the Bowlers, he might as well have chosen Alaska. It was just too damn far, they said, to drive back when you were drunk. There was a rumour untrue, since Craw's appetites did not run in that direction that he had got himself a pretty Chinese boy as a companion. That was the dwarf's work: he did not like to be scooped by old men.
Only Luke refused to put him out of mind. Luke drove out to see him one mid-morning after night-shift. For the hell of it, and because the old buzzard meant a lot to him. Craw was happy as the day is long, he reported; quite his former vile self, but a bit dazed to be bearded by Luke without warning. He had a friend with him, not a Chinese boy, but a visiting fireman whom he introduced as George: a podgy, ill-sighted little body in very round spectacles who had apparently dropped in unexpectedly. Aside, Craw explained to Luke that this George was a back-room boy on a British newspaper syndicate he used to work for in the dark ages.
"Handles the geriatric side, Your Grace. Taking a swing through Asia."
Whoever he was, it was clear that Craw stood in awe of the podgy man, for he even called him "Your Holiness." Luke had felt he was intruding and left without getting drunk.
So there it was: Thesinger's moonlight flit; old Craw's near death and resurrection; his swan-song in defiance of so much hidden censorship; Luke's restless preoccupation with the secret world; the Circus's inspired exploitation of a necessary evil. Nothing planned but, as life would have it, a curtain-raiser to much that happened later. A typhoon Saturday; a ripple on the plunging, fetid, sterile, swarming pool that is Hong Kong; a bored chorus, still without a hero. And curiously, a few months afterwards, it fell once more to Luke, in his role of Shakespearean messenger, to announce the hero's coming. The news came over the house wire while he was on stand-by, and he published it to a bored audience with his customary fervour.
"Folks! Give ear! I have news! Jerry Westerby's back on the beat, men! Heading out East again, hear me, stringing for that same damn comic!"
"His Lordship," the dwarf cried at once, in mock ecstasy. "A desh of blue blood, I say, to raise the vulgar tone! 'Oorah for quality, I say." With a profane oath, he threw a napkin at the wine rack. "Jesus," he said, and emptied Luke's glass.
Copyright © 1977 by David Cornwell
Introduction copyright © 1989 by David Cornwell
What People are Saying About This
“Not a page of this book is without intelligence and grace.”—The New York Times
“Energy, compassion, rich and overwhelming sweep of character and action…one of the finest English novels of the seventies.”—The Times (UK)
“All the good things are there: the Balkan complexities of plot; the Dickensian profusion of idiosyncratic characters; and above all, le Carré’s glistening social observation.”—Time
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
You have to read it to make the transition from Tinker Tailor to Smiley's People. However, it's not about Smiley and it's not about his battle for Karla. It's about his battle to focus the Circus and the effects that espionage has on the people who engage in it. The story is long, it's difficult to slog through but you must in order to fully appreciate the final story in the trilogy. Worst of all, the most difficult part of the story is the beginning. Fight through it though. It's ultimately worth it though you most likely won't understand why until you get about 1/2 through Smiley's People.
This is a great book but it can't be comfortably read on a Nookcolor because the font size is either too small or too big. This is entirely the fault of Barnes&Noble and their ridiculous limited font size settings. If B&N allowed the choice of font size (by point size, for example) then everyone could read at their chosen level. As it stands B&N is missing sales by not providing the kind of accessibility that many people buy a Nookcolor for in the first place.
It used to be that this was my favorite of the George Smiley books. I liked the reporter angle, the exotic Hong Kong setting, the intricacies of running agents, the tragedy waiting to happen throughout. This time I enjoyed it, but less so than the other two books. In some ways I think this is le Carré throwing everything he knows at the wall in hopes that it will stick. It is a testimony to his skill that it all does. In other ways it's almost too tainted with the Vietnam War, although that is not its subject matter it permeates the entire construct and makes things feel a bit dated.There are great moments in this, but they tend to be the smaller quiet ones - the reporters' bar on a rainy day, Craw visiting his little ship, the plane ride into Pnomh Penh. Don't get me wrong, all the big sweeping moments are good, too, but somehow didn't catch me as much.A good middle book between two excellent ones.
John le Carré writes in stealth mode; his novels, especially the George Smiley books, take forever to ramp up, but by the time you reach the meat and potatoes of the story, you don't even realize that you've blown through 500 pages. However, in contrast to the slick and sublime Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; this sort-of sequel seems bloated and purple in comparison. Le Carré himself has bemoaned how Alec Guinness' television portrayal of Smiley unduly influenced his future characterizations, as well as the disparity in real-world research that differentiates the books. Le Carré actually toured South Asia in the 70s and got caught in the crossfire, a fact that is reflected in the deep and rich descriptors of the region.The Honourable Schoolboy is more cinematic than its predecessor, less intellectual and insightful, and with slightly more intrigue. With the focus of the protagonist shifted from Smiley to field agent Jerry Westerby also comes a feeling of detachment, as if you're watching the story play out through second-hand eyes. It's also fairly long, and just about killed me in the middle where there's a lot of back and forth but not a whole lot going forward.Good, though. A rock-solid story from a postmodern master.
The second book in the Karla Trilogy (which includes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  and Smiley's People ; all three books were collected in omnibus form as The Quest for Karla in 1982) and the sixth novel featuring John Le Carré's "fat spy" George Smiley, The Honourable Schoolboy is a quietly gripping, intelligent spy thriller that gradually furthers the struggle of Britain's foreign intelligence service (MI6, here styled "the Circus") against Smiley's opposite number in the Soviet Union's KGB, Karla, after Smiley's pyrrhic victory in rooting out Karla's highly-placed Soviet mole within the Circus in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The Honourable Schoolboy unfolds largely through a series of multiple flashbacks (more accurately, flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks within -- you get the idea), recounting events during the final year or two of the Vietnam War; much of the action, when it finally starts, occurs in the then-British colony of Hong Kong and Vietnam, and is carried forward in a somewhat haphazard fashion by a reserve operative of the Circus, the "honourable schoolboy" (the adjective is deployed here in at least two senses) of the title, Gerald "Jerry" Westerby, the son of a self-made newspaper baron (in both senses of the word) and a disillusioned foreign correspondent attempting to write a book, who is tasked with bringing Karla's banker, the reclusive Hong Kong tycoon Drake Ko, to book, so as to undercut Karla's scope of operations. That's it, and the proceedings could have, in lesser hands, been a deadly dull affair; however, despite the relative paucity of conventional thriller-type action, I found The Honourable Schoolboy a riveting affair, and was sorry to come to the book's end. Le Carré deftly walks a fine line between presenting a by-the-numbers textbook case of practical espionage and a compelling psychological thriller salted with flavorful instances of local color and action. Smiley himself has arguably even more interest and power here than in Tinker, Tailor due to his being presented solely through the eyes of the other characters (call it the Gatsby effect). Jerry, a big, good-natured, slightly shabby, somewhat apologetic "lad," thinks he more or less knows what drives Smiley -- something close to a religious devotion and faith, but to the Circus itself rather than to the nation as a whole or to Western capitalism or to, well, religion -- but, ultimately, Smiley and, indeed, Jerry himself, are unknowable in the way that we all are, even to ourselves. If I liked Honourable Schoolboy somewhat less than Tinker, Tailor, the difference in my enjoyment levels was very slight, and probably due to the fact that Le Carré allowed more air into Schoolboy's narrative than he did into Tinker, Tailor's. If the reader is beguiled with the illusion that there are more quiet moments in Schoolboy than in Tinker, Tailor (a subplot about a budding romance between Smiley's aide-de-camp, Peter Guillam, and a young female employee of the Circus, carried over from Tinker, Tailor, is particularly amusing and welcome, if too subtle to be properly termed comic relief), these nominal lulls only serve to make the climax more climactic, more wrenching: the emotions that the reader will likely feel at book's end are a rich melange that preclude simplistic feelings of joy over victory or depression over defeat, and superbly bait the hook for him to proceed to the last book of the trilogy, Smiley's People.
enjoyable read. Again, like Tinker, Tailor, I found it difficult to get into but soon was gripped by the twists and turns of the plot. Couldn't put it down.
A very impressive John Le Carre. Like the best Alan Furth, what's interesting is not so much the story but the evocation of mood, in this case the mood of South East Asia in the wake of the American defeat in Vietnam.Highly recommended.
A book worth reading !
John le Carre' turned to the East, specifically the then British colony of Hong Kong, for the setting of his second book in the Karla trilogy. He continued the story of George Smiley and his battle with the Russian spymaster Karla. However, he added another plot that followed Jerry Westerby, a down on his luck aristocrat, newspaper reporter, and sometimes agent for Smiley and the Circus. Jerry had been a minor character in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but in Schoolboy he became the spiritual descendant of Alec Leamas of The Spy Who Came in From The Cold. The result was a novel with a bad case of schizophrenia; it could have been two separate books. Anther problem was that the book was half again as long as Tinker Tailor. At times dozens of pages go by without any progress in the plot as le Carre' holds forth on the collapse of British and American power in Southeast Asia. His writing is never less than brilliant, but the story of the operation becomes confused and diluted, This is still better than 999 of a thousand spy novels, but for John le Carre' it is only a qualified success.
This represents one of a number of novels that le Carre wrote. Initially he discounted any possible experience he might have had with British intelligence, although the reality was unmistakable. The consistency of the books and the reality of events and particularly physical places was unmistakable. Eventually, having retired, he admitted that he had worked in security. This stands out as probably the most honest evaluation of the lifestyle and mentality of someone who works in that field, up to and including the admission of the constant and lingering paranoia of the survivors.
I love the way you're plunged into the murky, ambiguous, unapologetic, and frequently funny world of George Smiley, et al.
David John Moore Cornwell (b. 1931), better known as John Le Carre, has written better spy thrillers than THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY (1977). Think of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and A SMALL TOWN IN GERMANY. THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY is an average fictional portrayal of a tired, uncertain, no longer great Britain carrying on in the mid-1970s Rudyard Kipling's "great game" against Russia of the glory years of Queen Victoria. That game has been portrayed deftly and in several hundred fewer pages in Kipling's KIM than in Le Carre's 1977 ho hum tale of Brits versus Russkis in Hong Kong and its East Asian neighborhood. *** At novel's beginning in 1973 the great Russian spymaster Karla has nearly wrecked Britain's famed secret service ("the Circus"). Playing an intelligent, conscientious but plodding Sherlock Holmes to Karla's evil genius, the UK's George Smiley is called out of retirement to plug massive leaks to the Soviets masterminded for decades by Kim Philby-reminiscent Bill Haydon, a mole risen high within London's Circus. Smiley outs Haydon, his wife Anne's cousin and sometime lover, clears up the mess caused by Karla and works to learn whatever lessons he can by "backtracking" Karla. What had Karla been up to that caused mole Haydon to take such desperate measures to keep it from being discovered? *** In a few weeks, on the basis of plodding intelligence work by a small trusted core of Smiley devotees and overseas field agents of the Circus, Smiley finds that Karla has funneled the huge (for Karla) sum of $500,000 to a trust fund in Hong Kong. Is the USSR planning to use that largest remaining gem of the once mighty British Empire to launch operations against Red China? What is the role of two Swatownese brothers, one a free-wheeling, amoral capitalist in the Crown Colony and the other possibly a high ranking Soviet mole in China? This is what THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY is about. *** Aristocratic, womanizing, morally flawed Clive Gerald (Jerry) Westerby is "The Honourable Schoolboy," a name given to him by the postmistress of the small Italian community where he lives in retirement from the Circus. Westerby, an experienced agent, had been sidelined by mole Haydon and is resuscitated by Smiley and sent to East Asia as part of the Circus's anti-Karla effort to rehabilitate itself. It takes a mere five chapters to learn Westerby's full name. *** Jerry Westerby proves a rogue elephant, impossible for his mentor George Smiley to keep from running amok. As much as anything, the sprawling THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY is about the differing world views of two tired old spies: Smiley and Westerby, neither's views possessing much depth or relevance to the collapsing pro-Western regimes of 1970s Viet-Nam, Laos and Cambodia or Hong Kong, soon to be reabsorbed into China. *** A medium large theme of this novel is the bureaucratic maneuvering by which America's CIA pushes aside the British Secret Service in its own colony, Hong Kong. It is the CIA, not Smiley's Circus, that in the end takes decisive action against Karla's bad guy. This is a novel of an aging British Empire and its aging, worn down spies, being overwhelmed by legions of fresh young better paid American secret agents. THE HONOURABLE SCHOOL BOY is about flagging Britain and ground down British patriots. It is a tale about when "old men talk about themselves, studying their image in vanished mirrors" (Ch. 11). -OOO-