From secret service to a flashy spy, Smiley’s stories have them all

James Bond is what you think the Cold War spies were like. George Smiley is what they actually were like.

Published: 07th December 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th December 2017 11:11 PM   |  A+A-

James Bond is what you think the Cold War spies were like. George Smiley is what they actually were like. Across nine novels, George Smiley defined the spy genre, and gave it form and respectability — John Le Carré, the creator of Smiley is a writer of genuine quality. Being of a high literary content does not, however, make the Smiley novels any less exciting to read. They are also the depiction of a specific period in history, a kind of a time capsule.

John Le Carré is the pseudonym of David Cornwell, a British former spy, and George Smiley was imagined out of a small back room on the third floor of the Leconfield House, the headquarters of the British MI5 (the secret service), in Curzon Street of London’s West End. When talking about spying and the MI5, Le Carré once even mentioned that:

“The impulses that drove these spies, these secret agents, these normal men and women, were the same impulses that have driven mankind from the dawn of time. For some, a need to be appreciated, to belong. For others, a need for the shelter of a secret, God-like organization; and for others again a talent to deceive, a desire to play the world’s game, and to know you are one up on your neighbor on the bus; and for yet others, spying was what they had instead of a usual and  happy childhood.”

George Smiley, OBE is the career secret agent brought to life. Smiley is almost as non-James Bond-ish as a person can be. He made his appearance in 1958, in Call for the Dead, and we have seen him most recently in this year’s A Legacy of Spies. Frumpy, overweight, taciturn, introverted, Smiley is a senior official of the MI5. He is an exceptionally smart man, and is a master of the methodical, non-flashy spy work.  He is though, first and foremost, a human person.

Perhaps the most famous novel of the Smiley series is one where Smiley has a small part — The Spy Who came in From the Cold. This is the story of Alec Leamas, a spy who, with the MI5, is part of a plan to act as a faux defector to East Germany, and implicate an East German officer. It is a stark, poignant story, dealing with topics that one would hardly encounter in a spy novel — morality, truth, love, sacrifice and even doubt about the British cause.

Three of the best Smiley novels are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People; commonly referred to as the Karla trilogy, in which Smiley encounters and matches  wits with Karla, who is the mysterious Russian counter-intelligence operative.

Why do the Smiley novels work for a diverse set of readers? In my opinion, it’s because Le Carré writes in a style made for the serious literature fan – the psychological drama, the human story, the sparkling prose; and his stories are for the excitement hawk — stories of high espionage and global intrigue that are genuine page turners.

Shom Biswas


The writer is a business development executive in Hyderabad

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