The first of the “Karla” trilogy, this book is also the weakest. le Carré continually breaks the novelist’s golden rule: show--don’t tell. Nevertheless, he delivers a powerful story while keeping a critical eye on societal and political mores as his hero, George Smiley of the British Secret Intelligence Service, uncovers a mole in SIS’s upper echelons being run by Smiley’s Russian nemesis, codenamed Karla. Based on real-life events, in particular the defection to Russia by senior SIS officer Kim Philby, it provides le Carré fuel for his favourite themes: the erosion of the UK’s political influence in international politics and the ascension of the US and USSR in a post-Cold War era.
The second of the “Karla” trilogy, this book further explores the post-Cold War world, this time following SIS agent George Smiley’s investigation into Russian corruption in Asia as the American war in Vietnam is coming to an end. Vastly over-written, it lurches awkwardly from behind-the-scenes footwork by Smiley and his crew in England to their agent on the ground in Asia, Jerry Westerby, a sometime journalist. Nevertheless, there is the feel of something momentous here. On the whole, the Westerby sections are the least interesting, taking on the showy tones of an international spy thriller with conversations that go on far too long, whereas the Smiley chapters are the best, focusing on the more introspective subtleties of Smiley and his gang as they follow a trail Smiley hopes will ultimately lead him to Karla, the Russian Sauron.
The third and final instalment of the “Karla” trilogy, this is also the most satisfying. Here, le Carré comes fully to terms with his material and his storyline as SIS’s George Smiley, back from retirement, hunts down the elusive Karla, codename for a Russian spymaster. le Carré treats his readers to a final reflection on the many people Smiley has encountered over the course of his career and personal life as Smiley finally manages to get the better of Karla, the great nemesis who has dogged him for decades. Despite a weakness in the final chapters where le Carré resorts once again to telling his story instead of showing it, the book is ultimately a masterful summation of the series.