Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review of The Honorable Schoolboy by John Le Carre (2002, Penguin)

In the wake of the uncovering of a highly placed mole in the British Secret Service, George Smiley is determined to rebuild the Service's shattered reputation and to go on the attack. Smiley’s small team of trusted confidants search back through the mole’s work, not looking for what was stolen or disrupted but what was overlooked or ignored. What they discover is that Smiley nemesis in Moscow Centre, Karla, has an operation running in the Far East and Hong Kong is its key locus. Former journalist and spy Jerry Westerby – the Honorable Schoolboy – is plucked out of retirement and sent to Hong Kong, notionally as a reporter. From there he follows a trail to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand on the trail of two pilots left in the area after the US has pulled out. Playing politics with Whitehall and American colleagues, Smiley senses a reversal of fortunes, though it relies on Jerry staying alive and delivering the plan on his solo run through South-East Asia.

The Honorable Schoolboy is the second book in the Karla trilogy, and the sixth out nine books by Le Carre featuring George Smiley. In this outing, Smiley is trying to assess and repair the damage caused by a mole at the higher echelons of the British Secret Service. The collateral damage is huge, with people and programmes being cast aside in an effort to re-float a holed ship. At the same time, Smiley is also looking for a way to strike back at Karla, the Russian mastermind behind the mole. He finds a potential route to revenge in Hong Kong and some false accounts, and dispatches Jerry Westerby, a rehabilitated victim of the purges, to investigate. Through a fairly complex plot, with a large set of characters, Le Carre charts Smiley’s scheming and Westerby’s trail through the Far East. The storytelling is very nicely judged for much of the tale, though at times it’s a little uneven, with some sections being a masterclass in painting scenes and character development, and others feeling thin and over-extended, and the middle third was a bit plodding. I was also never really convinced by Westerby’s motivation. Overall, though, an intricate, thoughtful spy-thriller.

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