If you like the writing style of David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, this book is worth the read. It is a well organized exposé of a past espionage operation, that was a thriller, rather than this novel actually being the thriller. This novel, instead, is about a case that took place about half a century before, in the life of the now aged and retired, George Smiley, a legend in the British Secret Service, and his protégé, Peter (Pierre) Guillam who is also now retired. The novel makes use of the author’s exceptional research over his lifetime.
John le Carré is now in the second half of his eighth decade on this earth. In his excellent prose, he presents a rather detailed description of the spy craft that is involved in an action, as well as the necessary cover-ups used when not all goes according to plan. Some are rather cold-blooded. The risks and rewards of working for The Office are shared in all the glory and gloom of the results.
“The Office” or The Circus” as the world of British “spydom” is also known, is inhabited by a variety of characters that are recruited in a variety of ways. Some are sought for their expertise, some for their appearance, some for their gender. Peter recruits spies. There are a great number in the book, and sometimes, keeping track of each is difficult. I hope the print book lists them.
Basically, this is the story of an operation called Windfall that was headed up by a man, code name, Mayflower and run by The Control. George Smiley, a spymaster of past fame in le Carré’s books, moved all these people around like chess pieces. He was a brilliant planner. On this case, he made use of Peter, who was willing to do anything necessary for G-d, his country, and George Smiley. He also loved his women.
When it appeared that the Windfall operation was compromised, and agents were in danger, a cover-up was launched. The details of Windfall remained hidden for decades until the survivors of some of the agents who lost their lives, started asking questions and demanding fuller answers. Eventually, they threatened to sue and prepared a law suit. Peter was called in and questioned relentlessly. He was unable to locate George Smiley. Would he be the sacrificial lamb used to protect the overall image of the Service in these changing times when everyone and everything was suspect instead of sacrosanct as it had been in the past? At the time of the operation in question, Peter was a young man who had been sowing a lot of wild oats, not necessarily attesting to a man of great character. Could all the events be spun to make him the villain?
It is a fascinating story of the inner workings of the British Spy Service complete with its protocols, cover-up efforts, debriefings, damage control, safe houses, and tactics. As it exposes betrayals and loss of life, it illustrates the sacrifices of those left behind as they pick up the pieces of their lives. It is not only the agent that does his/her part. The family suffers with them.
As the novel exposes the methods, lies and manipulation used to get people involved in this business, it also illustrates how expendable a spy becomes when compromised or when rash decisions are made like disobeying orders, regardless of the reason. The larger picture was always considered greater than the life of the spy. Because the story covers Russian efforts to recruit spies and double agents, which is in the news today, it is really timely.
Tom Hollander, the narrator of this book, did a fantastic job making what could have been dull, lengthy descriptions far more fascinating than tedious.