In Series Breakdowns, we take a look at series of movies, novels, and television shows to track how well (or badly) they’ve progressed as subsequent editions have been produced. Every series we review has personal meaning to the writer, and our analyses will be summations of how we feel about the series, rather than a review of its merits. You may feel completely different than we do. If so, please don’t take offense. We are not professional critics, and have no training as such. These are just our thoughts poured out on paper.


John le Carre’s trilogy of George Smiley novels is the only series I know of that gives a realistic look at what espionage is truly like. All three stories are complex, difficult reads because, frankly, being a spy is complex and difficult. Those that are looking for a James Bond thriller would likely grow frustrated and then fall asleep while reading these brilliant tales, but anybody that is curious about what it’s really like to manipulate world affairs behind the scenes will be enthralled.


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 

Before his career as a novelist, John le Carre worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus, this account of a retired senior MI6 (AKA “the Circus”) official coming out of forced retirement to expose a Russian mole during the height of the Cold War comes off as 100% authentic and feels more like a documentary of real events than a spy novel.

George Smiley was disgraced and relieved of his duties when Control, his mysterious mentor and head of the Circus, conducted Operation Testify, which resulted in a British operative being taken prisoner by Russian forces. Years later, Smiley is summoned by MI6’s civilian overseer and told that a mole within the Circus has been slipping precious items of British national security to the Russians for some time.

Smiley is told that the now-deceased Control had suspected a mole before he was removed from power, and that he launched Operation Testify in order to uncover the mole’s identity. The mole is suspected to be one of Smiley’s former peers, the group of senior officials that took over when he and Control were ousted. Now, Smiley is tasked with uncovering the identity of the mole and plugging the biggest leak in the history of British Intelligence.

Working from the sidelines with no access to the Circus’ building or classified files, Smiley recruits a low-level former protégé and a retired policeman to assist him while picking the brains of other agency castoffs to try and outwit the mole. With none of Bond’s gadgets, souped-up BMWs, or beautiful sexpots at his disposal, Smiley’s only tools are theft, blackmail, coercion, and duplicity. While trying to outmaneuver the unidentified mole, Smiley soon learns that he is actually matching wits with a high-ranking Soviet spymaster that bested him in the past, known only by his codename, Karla. Before long, the reader realizes that this is but one battle in the war between Smiley and Karla, a war which will continue long after Smiley finally exposes the mole.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy replaces the camp of the Bond novels with relentless realism, complete with a handbook full of jargon and procedures that British spies actually used while combating the Soviets during a unique, first-of-its-kind war; a war of information, lies, and betrayal that was chalk full of pain, heartbreak, and death, but completely absent of victories or closure. It truly suspended my disbelief and made me feel like I was witnessing actual events that shaped history a decade before I was born.


The Honorable Schoolboy

A year after Smiley captures the mole from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he is running the Circus and looking into the many investigations that the mole sabotaged before his discovery. He dispatches Jerry Westerby, a Circus operative, to investigate a money laundering enterprise in Hong Kong that is rooted in a smuggling operation involving Nelson Ko, a Chinese government official who has been spying for the Soviet Union.

The British and American governments bicker over how to capture Ko and use his knowledge of Chinese and Soviet intelligence to their respective advantages, with Smiley particularly interested in Ko’s interactions with Smiley’s old nemesis, Karla. Westerby becomes caught up in the middle of it all, battling with his doubts over the Circus’ ethics, methods, and influence in Asia on the whole.

This sequel goes in a surprisingly different direction from the first novel, focusing on the dilemmas that virtuous men face while trying to serve what they believe to be the best interests of their nation. Are the British and American intelligence forces truly trying to make the world safe for democracy? Or are they simply concerned with protecting their own strategic and financial interests on the world stage?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does a brilliant job of initiating us into the world of international espionage, but The Honorable Schoolboy enriches the franchise by introducing the endless ethical quandaries that go hand-in-hand with being stuck in this brutal world of deception and moral ambiguity.


Smiley’s People

The conclusion of the trilogy begins when a Russian immigrant living in Paris is tricked into filing an exit permit for her daughter, who is still stuck in the oppressive Soviet Union. When she receives no word regarding her daughter’s exit status, she seeks the help of a retired Soviet general who is actually a British spy, who relates the woman’s story to the Circus before he is murdered by Soviet agents.

When MI6 once again recruits George Smiley out of retirement to investigate the matter, he navigates a web of Soviet spy indiscretions and confessions to deduce that Karla, the cunning old Soviet spymaster, is behind the fraudulent exit permit. Discovering a vulnerability that could finally lead to Karla’s defeat, Smiley must decide if his ultimate professional victory is worth stooping to the abhorrent levels that his longtime nemesis has traded in for all these years.

The conclusion to Smiley’s trilogy wraps up the plots and themes of the books in a manner befitting the series: not with a grand chase scene ending with an epic shootout, but with a lesson in covert tradecraft that is as complex and ruthless as it is realistic and uncinematic. Where a lesser story would climax with gory death scenes and dramatic monologues, Smiley’s People leaves us with a stroll on a bridge and the drop of a lighter. Yet our eyeballs are still glued to every page, our hearts nearly exploding from the tension that has been built so expertly over three long novels.

The Smiley trilogy is proof positive that you don’t need grand set pieces, pithy one-liners, or psychotic villains to write an engaging spy thriller. Nuanced, realistic stories with deep, understated characters make this series every bit as exciting as any exotic, grandstanding shoot-em-up you’ll find on the shelves. If you want proof, these stories have inspired both a British miniseries and celebrity-packed Hollywood film, with heavyweights like Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman in the starring roles.

Trust me, if you commit your close attention to this series and deign to follow along with the compelling procedures and lingo of real-life Cold War-era spy tradecraft, I guarantee you will be satisfied.

As fun and exciting as the James Bond franchise is (and I’ve always been a big fan), there is something unique about being allowed behind the curtain of authentic espionage tactics by someone who has seen it firsthand. It’s got nothing to do with blackjack or martinis or doomsday weapons. It’s all about building relationships, psychology, manipulation, and exploiting vulnerabilities.

After reading le Carre’s novels, you’ll realize that real life spies are actually far tougher and more capable than any role that Sean Connery or Daniel Craig have ever played.


By Luke

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