Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Honourable Schoolboy (John le Carré)

I had The Honourable Schoolboy reserved at our local library branch when we happened to go to a street fair nearby, which happened to feature a book sale by another local branch, which happened to have an old paperback copy on sale for 50 cents. Who could say no?

This book picks up where the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (review) left off, with George Smiley now head of a British Intelligence in complete disarray after the discovery of the Soviet mole in Tinker. In casting about for a way to get off the defensive, Smiley begins searching for operations that the mole had shown an unusual interest in suppressing, and comes upon one in Hong Kong—large payments made to a mysterious bank account by Smiley’s counterpart in Moscow, Karla, tied somehow to drug shipments at a tiny airline business.

Schoolboy has the same attention to detail and character, and the same wrestling with the nature of spy work—the constant drive, as he puts it at one point, “to be inhuman in the defense of our humanity . . . harsh in defense of compassion”—that made Tinker and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold so good. It did, however, suffer from unfortunate bouts of Research Syndrome—apparently le Carré made a number of trips to Southeast Asia, and at times the book starts to read more like journalism than a novel, with long stretches of Jerry Westerby (the eponymous Honourable Schoolboy) hoofing it around Cambodia and Laos and Thailand and meeting people and seeing various horrible things in various war-torn regions. The passages do theoretically tie into the story—Westerby is searching for assorted unsavory characters on Smiley’s orders—but he probably could’ve gotten the job done in a hundred or so fewer pages, and they definitely slowed things down to a crawl for a while. (I get the feeling that they worked better at the time the book was first published, when the Vietnam War had barely ended and the Khmer Rouge were still in power in Cambodia, and the events described in Schoolboy would have had more immediacy.)

Schoolboy also felt a little more distant than Tinker—the stakes not quite as high, the subject perhaps not quite as close to le Carré’s heart. (Kim Philby, the model for the mole in Tinker, had ended le Carré’s own career with British Intelligence.) But it’s still a compelling read, and I’m still looking forward to the last of the trilogy, Smiley’s People.

(Also, note to the cover designers: When you have to hyphenate two words in your title? Maybe time to bring the font size down a few points.)

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