The Honourable Schoolboy, which appeared in 1977, was the second installment of John le Carré’s Karla trilogy, recounting the epic struggle between British spymaster George Smiley and his Soviet counterpart Karla.
The Circus (as Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service or MI6 is known in le Carré’s books) is in turmoil. In fact turmoil doesn’t even begin to describe the situation. The activities (as described in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) of the highly placed mole run by Karla have completely gutted the service. Their networks have all been blown. Even their legals (agents operating with the protection of diplomatic cover) have been hopelessly compromised. They have had to shut down most of their foreign residencies. Their credibility with the British government is in tatters. Even worse, the CIA (on whom they depend to a humiliating degree) no longer trusts them. George Smiley, who had been brought out of retirement to track down the mole (which he did successfully) is now in charge of the Circus but it’s not a job anyone would envy.
Smiley is an old hand and he’s not dismayed. He knows that what the Circus needs to do is to pull off a spectacular coup and that’s what he intends to bring about. How to do this with a handful of field agents and no resources? Smiley is not dismayed by this either. What the Circus will do is to comb through their archives, looking for patterns. What Smiley hopes to find is a record of any apparently promising investigation that was inexplicably stifled by London Station. After all if someone like Karla had a very highly placed mole in the Circus it stands to reason that one of the mole’s jobs would have been to block investigations that Karla particularly wanted to have blocked. If Smiley can find such a record then he will have found a weakness - something that Karla cannot afford to have the Circus suddenly taking an interest in.
And Smiley finds just such a case. It involves some very curious banking transactions in Laos. From there the trail seems to lead to Hong Kong. It looks very promising. Now Smiley’s real problems begin. Karla is a formidable adversary but at least one knows where one stands with an openly declared enemy. It’s the undeclared enemies within one’s own side that cause the trouble. For starters there’s MI5, with whom relations are always at daggers drawn. There’s the Foreign Office. There’s the British Treasury. There are Smiley’s political masters. And then there’s the CIA (known not so affectionately as the Cousins).
Smiley will have to make use of one of his Occasionals (or part time agents). Jerry Westerby may or may not be the son of a lord and may or may not be entitled to be addressed as the Honourable Gerald Westerby. To his neighbours in Tuscany he is known as the Schoolboy. Hence the Honourable Schoolboy of the title. Westerby picks up the trail and it leads to something bigger than even Smiley could have hoped for. It will take Westerby to Hong Kong, to Laos, to Cambodia, to Saigon and to Thailand and it will cost a number of lives, some innocent and some not-so-innocent.
The first part of the novel is the strongest since it plays very much to le Carré’s strengths - his extraordinary ability to make the minutiae of routine methodical intelligence work fascinating. This is the kind of thing George Smiley loves, it’s the kind of thing le Carré loves and it’s spellbinding. The latter part of the novel involves rather more action than one usually expects from this author and there’s a lengthy interlude as Westerby get himself caught up in the middle of a very hot war indeed.
There are three themes that run through le Carré’s spy fiction. The first is the usual spy fiction theme, that of deception and betrayal, but made more personal by the fact that le Carré himself during his career as a real-life spy encountered betrayal first-hand in the person of the notorious MI6 traitor Harold ‘Kim’ Philby. The second is the theme of Britain’s disastrous postwar decline into a second-rate power and the third is the related theme of the Special Relationship between the British intelligence services and the CIA, a humiliatingly unequal relationship. It’s obvious that le Carré feels these things personally. The events of the book coincide with the fall of Saigon and le Carré clearly gets a certain amount of pleasure from the humiliation of the US. I wouldn’t say this was an anti-American book as such but le Carré’s dislike of the US government and of the CIA is palpable.
The Circus has so few resources that they cannot undertake even routine surveillance operations without CIA help. The Circus does all the important work in uncovering Karla’s grand plan but the CIA has no intention of allowing the British to get the credit or any of the benefits. George Smiley is a wily old bird but he is clever enough to keep control of the operation?
In fact the operation threatens to get out of hand entirely and the problem is not caused by the CIA or the KGB.
The Honourable Schoolboy is a classic Cold War spy thriller but with a difference since the Cold War gets tangled up with several hot wars. Smiley is accustomed to dealing with the espionage side of the Cold War in Europe where he knows all the rules but the chaos of South-East Asia in the mid-70s introduces some disturbing imponderables. The book is also a slight change of pace for le Carré with the horrors of actual war at times taking centre stage. It’s a reminder that espionage isn’t just a gentlemanly game. Highly recommended.