Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Honourable Schoolboy - John le Carre

The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) is the middle and least-known of le Carre's Smiley Trilogy of the 70s. Framed by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, it suffers because it has never been adapted for the screen, but it is every bit as good as the novels which bookend it. This is the operation which will define Smiley's tenure as head of the Circus. Trying to untangle the mess inherited from the mole Bill Haydon, Smiley finds the case of Hong Kong tycoon Drake Ko and his brother Nelson, who might be about to defect from China. Unable to know who he might be able to trust in the field, Smiley sends the Circus 'occasional' Jerry Westerby, son of the Press baron (hence the 'Hon') and himself a journalist.

Jerry is the character involved in most of the action here, and very good he is too. On the face of it a lumbering lazy giant, he is in fact fiercely loyal to his personal code of honour and the mentor who recruited him back in the day, George Smiley. Next to Smiley, Jerry Westerby might just be the best le Carre character ever. The novel also benefits from a meaningful female lead, Lizzie Worthington, who hoped to make her looks her fortune in the East but who has ended up something of a courtesan and a drug mule.

Meanwhile Smiley oversees matters from afar (London, until the last couple of chapters) where he negotiates the delicate politics needed to continue the Circus after the scandal. Connie Sachs is back as one of his key advisers, along with the profoundly eccentric Doc de Salis. Peter Guillam is, of course, Smiley's righthand man, and there is a minder, Fawn, who I don't believe ever reappears but who is darkly memorable here.

The book is immensely long (well over 600 pages) and extraordinarily detailed. It's a long time since I read Tinker Tailor and Smiley's People (a good forty years) but I don't remember them being quite this good. I suppose they have now become something of a stereotype for British spy fiction, whereas the Hong Kong setting and Chinese communists are still a rarity. It is, without doubt, a masterpiece of its genre.

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