Friday, 15 June 2001

John le Carré: The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)

Edition: Pan, 1978 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 840

The Honourable Schoolboy is a sequel to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The discovery of the Russian mole in an extremely senior position in the British intelligence operation known as the Circus has severely damaged its reputation, both in Whitehall and abroad. George Smiley, as acting head of the Circus, has the task of re-building confidence, with agents known to the Russians, and unwillingness throughout Whitehall to give him resources or share information.

The only possible source of intelligence that the Circus now possesses is analysis of the activities of the mole. By looking at his manipulation of operations, it is possible to tell something of both the holes in Soviet knowledge and what they themselves were trying to keep hidden. In the second category falls a Hong Kong bank account, into which vast amounts of Russian money have been deposited, and where previous investigations were quashed by the mole, who also destroyed many of the relevant files.

Smiley manages to find an agent whose existence does not seem to have been revealed to the Russians to send to Hong Kong to investigate, and manages to persuade Whitehall to let the Circus resume active operations. The agent is Jerry Westerby, son of a press baron (hence the Honourable of the title), and the novel is divided about half and half between Smiley's activities in London and Westerby's in Hong Kong and Indochina.

Smiley is clearly the character who holds le Carré's interest, and the London, office bound, scenes are far more interesting than the action in the East - just as in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy they are compared with the activities of Prideaux in Eastern Europe. This is despite the fact that le Carré's depiction of the corrupt world of Triads, opium, civil war and the disintegrating US presence is compelling. The reason for it is basically that Smiley is the only fully realised character, those around him being caricatures and Westerby a stereotype, not essentially any different from Prideaux.

The Honourable Schoolboy is not as good as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; the excitement is less. Smiley on the trail of the mole is much more interesting than Smiley trying to restore the reputation of the Circus, and the novel is therefore less involving. Readable, but not le Carré at his best.

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