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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Smiley's People. John Le Carre. Sceptre. (1979)


Enthralling and melancholy book about a final reckoning between two long term opposing spymasters. George Smiley, retired head of British secret service, is recalled to action by the death of an old acquaintance. There is a concern that this death may cause problems for the service and Smiley is drafted in to tidy up the details and bury the case. As Smiley investigates he finds that the trail leads back to an old enemy and the possibility of revenge. The story unfolds at a steady pace as the complex web is revealed and the stage is set for the grim and bitter climax.
This is a wonderful book, written with supreme confidence and astonishing skill, willing to take the time to assemble the details of the story and increase the pressure slowly and inevitably. Smiley is a devastating well developed character, he is supremely skilled as a spymaster, at home with the pitiless bureaucracy of espionage and the culture of deceit and betrayal that underpin it. Away from that world he is adrift and unsure, unable to be simply human. The rest of the cast share this to greater or lesser degrees, they are all most alive when involved in intrigue. At the heart of the book is a very intimate betrayal, the choice that Smiley must make if he wishes to ensnare his enemy.
This is a book that loves words and uses them with care and abundance, the descriptions are long and detailed and never tiresome. The length and breath add to the depth of the book, they reveal but never quite explain. There is a vital ambiguity at the heart of the book that centres on the figure of George Smiley, in the end he retains an element of mystery which is deeply satisfying. Extraordinary fiction that is sharply truthful and gloriously readable and enjoyable.

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