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TAC Bookshelf: Le Carré 2024

State of the Union: John le Carré’s Karla trilogy’s real power comes from the offhand scenes and observations from the end of a civilization.
Smiley's People

Jude Russo, managing editor: “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves.... You’re the last, George, you and Bill.” So the former head of research for the British Secret Service describes the gray prospects of ailing Albion’s intelligence community to the spymaster George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the first installment of John le Carré’s Karla trilogy.

The books, which detail Smiley’s long-distance chess game against the Soviet spymaster pseudonymed Karla, are redolent of the Britain of the ’70s—the failure and humiliation, the tanking pound and the withdrawal east of Suez. While the plots are as riveting and intricate as any spy novel’s, the books’ real power comes from the offhand scenes and observations from the end of a civilization: the Secret Service’s headquarters trashed after a listening bug search; the wistful comment that “there is a kind of Englishman for whom only the East is home”; most hauntingly for the American reader, an Air Force colonel shaking a British agent’s hand amid the Vietnam withdrawal.

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His comment: “I want you to extend the hand of welcome, sir. The United States of America has just applied to join the club of second-class powers, of which I understand your own fine nation to be chairman, president, and oldest member.”

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