George Smiley came into the world as a very different kind of spy, one perfectly adapted to the crepuscular realm of cold war intrigue. He appeared the same year as the Berlin Wall in Call for the Dead (1961), the first novel by his creator, John le Carré. The book is a rather modest murder mystery set in London against a background of East–West espionage, its palette dominated by woolly browns and smoggy grays and the embers of wan coal fires. It begins with a brief chapter devoted entirely to the main character:

John le Carré
John le Carré; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like a skin on a shrunken toad…that fleshy, bespectacled face puckered in energetic concentration as he read so deeply among the lesser German poets, the chubby wet hands clenched beneath the tumbling sleeves.

Smiley, we are told, has somehow made a glittering marriage to a glamorous aristocrat, Lady Ann Sercomb, who genuinely adores him. Yet not long after their wedding she reveals herself to be a serial adulteress:

That part of Smiley which survived was as incongruous to his appearance as love, or a taste for unrecognised poets: it was his profession, which was that of intelligence officer.

We learn that Smiley spent World War II running his own agent networks inside Germany under various cover identities, and found his true vocation in the job—even if “he had never guessed it was possible to be frightened for so long.”

Small wonder that some critics saw Smiley as the “anti-Bond.” Ian Fleming had created his own trademark spy in Casino Royale (1953). But he quickly discovered, in a reflection of just how little the actual cold war lent itself to his character’s macho antics, that his readers seemed to enjoy 007 more the more garish his plots became, and he soon abandoned those boring Russians for cartoon characters like Goldfinger, Blofeld, and their ilk.

Smiley, by contrast, remained firmly anchored in the gritty reality of a great-power conflict that by its nature produced few clear victories. He continued to crop up in le Carré’s next novels, most notably in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963), the book that transformed its author into a global literary celebrity. Yet one can argue that Smiley revealed his full potential as a character in the three great novels that are nowadays known as the “Karla trilogy.” Together they tell a story that revolves around le Carré’s mythologized version of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (sometimes known as MI6), referred to in the books as “the Circus” (taken from the imagined location of its headquarters on Cambridge Circus in London1). The Circus is a dingy civil service purgatory, an “Edwardian mausoleum” adorned with chipped fire extinguishers from the Ministry of Works, creaky cage elevators, and imitation leather sofas. In this cloistered universe, the business of international espionage is anything but sexy. Smiley’s world is a place of grim Whitehall battles, dusty files, and marathon interrogations in dimly lit rooms.

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), Smiley painstakingly tracks down a Soviet mole buried deep inside the Circus. The novel clearly draws on the real-world scandal of Kim Philby, the most notorious of a group of British officials in high places who turned out to be spying for the USSR; Philby defected to Moscow in 1963. In le Carré’s reimagining, the Soviet spymaster Karla, Smiley’s archrival, has leveraged his knowledge of Ann’s infidelities to humiliating effect: he has instructed Bill Haydon, his man in the Circus, to have an affair with Smiley’s wife, thus “confounding” her husband, whom Karla considers his most formidable opponent in London.

The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), much of which takes place in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, follows Smiley’s effort to capture a master spy Karla has planted deep inside the Chinese Communist government—a nice way of dealing a crushing blow to Moscow Center (the author’s in-house term for the KGB). In Smiley’s People (1979), the eponymous hero finally completes his act of revenge. Discovering that Karla has a buried family secret, Smiley uses it to blackmail him into defecting. In a beautifully imagined denouement, Karla arrives in the West at a Berlin Wall border crossing designated for East German pensioners. A circle is fatefully closed.

What is most striking about these stories is their emphatic denial of any sense of triumph. Even when Smiley is about to score the greatest victories of his career, the air of melancholy never lifts. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ends with Smiley’s brilliantly orchestrated unmasking of the mole,2 but his realization that Haydon has been betraying the Circus’s secrets at the highest level for so long, and that his Moscow counterpart has been exploiting his status as a cuckold, make for a distinctly downbeat ending. In the final pages of The Honourable Schoolboy, the Americans literally swoop down from the sky to snatch the prize Chinese defector away just as Smiley’s team is about to reap the benefits of their months of painstaking work. (Le Carré is well known for his antipathy toward the US government, so “the Cousins,” as his characters call the Americans, usually play a rather nefarious role.) And Smiley’s victory over Karla in the final pages of Smiley’s People is tinged by the knowledge that he has won by leveraging his enemy’s personal vulnerability—specifically, a schizophrenic daughter hidden away in a Swiss asylum, paid for with secret funds in a serious violation of Moscow Center rules—in just the same way that Karla manipulated him. The novel ends on a typically anticlimactic note:


He realised he had no real name by which to address his enemy: only a code-name, and a woman’s at that. Even his military rank was a mystery. And still Smiley hung back, like a man refusing to go on stage….

“George, you won,” said Guillam, as they walked slowly towards the car.

“Did I?” said Smiley. “Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did.”

It is this antiheroic quality that gives Smiley his enduring force as a character. He is a genius in his way: a brilliant observer, a painstaking psychologist, and above all a virtuosic questioner. (Le Carré remains unchallenged in his ability to turn long interrogation scenes into spellbinding revelations, and Smiley is almost always the one running the show.) Smiley is not a softie: he’s fully capable of ruthlessness, especially when it’s a matter of ferreting out some elusive truth. He is not a naïf or an idealist, but neither is he a cynic or a careerist. He inspires intense loyalty among his followers, who tend to see him as one of the uncorrupted. It is this embattled and vulnerable nobility that has, presumably, made him so enthralling to so many readers.

In his magnificent biography of le Carré, Adam Sisman has a revealing anecdote on this score. In the late 1990s, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a visit to her Russian counterpart Yevgeny Primakov in Moscow. Primakov had spent most of his career in the Soviet KGB, so when the two of them discovered that they were both le Carré fans, she naturally assumed that he identified with Smiley’s Soviet rival. “‘No,’ he replied; ‘I identify with George Smiley.’”3

Smiley’s gifts are balanced by a distinctly English spirit of self-effacement and an all-too-painful awareness of the flaws of the secret world. James Bond has virtually no inner life; Smiley is always working hard to keep his at bay. Looming over it all is the dreary awareness of his repeated betrayals at the hands of his wife, which are often alluded to, overtly or indirectly, by many of those who know him. And despite his administrative skill, Smiley is often pushed aside by his less principled bureaucratic opponents; he always seems to be either emerging from forced retirement or being pushed back into it.

The end of the cold war, logically enough, finally made Smiley’s retirement permanent. He made what seemed likely to be his last appearance in The Secret Pilgrim (1990), a series of interconnected stories in which he lectures a new generation of Circus initiates on the ins and outs of what his spies refer to as “the trade.” But even if Soviet power was gone, the trade lived on, and le Carré thereafter set out to defy the critics who were skeptical about his ability to continue telling interesting stories after the loss of his big subject (and his most beloved character). So he embarked on a daunting range of new themes and settings, from an independence struggle in the northern Caucasus (Our Game) to Western capitalism’s predations in East Africa (The Constant Gardener) and the war on terror (Absolute Friends). The critics were wrong. Le Carré was perfectly capable of breathing life into his characters long after the cold war was over. But Smiley wasn’t one of them.


Until now, that is. “George Smiley is back!” the publisher’s ads breathlessly proclaim. And indeed, le Carré’s new novel, A Legacy of Spies, is the first of his novels in twenty-seven years to return to his trademark character. But there may be a bit of false advertising in the claim. The protagonist of this new book is not Smiley but Peter Guillam, a familiar character from the earlier generation of books, where he served as Smiley’s most loyal (and much younger) lieutenant. As A Legacy of Spies begins, Guillam, who is living out his retirement on his family farm in Brittany, receives an official summons to the Circus—not the charmingly grubby HQ of old, of course, but the huge brutalist pile on the south bank of the Thames, next to Vauxhall Station, that currently houses the real-world Secret Intelligence Service.


Upon arrival, he’s told that a lawsuit has been launched against the Circus that threatens to unearth a great deal of its old dirty laundry (especially if a parliamentary committee chooses to jump on the bandwagon). The operation in question, which revolved around the recruitment and defection of a female East German agent in the late 1950s and early 1960s, turns out to be a prequel of sorts to The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which ended with the death of Smiley’s agent Alec Leamas and his lover, the idealistic British Communist Elizabeth Gold, in the sodium-lit shadows of the Berlin Wall. Guillam, it would seem, is the only surviving member of the old service who is still around to blame. Smiley, for some reason, can’t be found—and no one will tell Guillam where he is.

The initiator of the suit turns out to be Leamas’s son, Christoph, a German petty criminal who is determined to soak the Circus for all the cash he can get. Christoph has also tracked down two others who suffered similar fates: the daughter of Liz Gold and the son of the East German agent, code-named Tulip, who wasn’t allowed to bring him along when she defected. (It is this case of forgotten children who make up the “legacy” of the title.) At the prodding of his Circus masters, Guillam retraces these old events through case files, interrogations, and a return to an old safe house that Smiley and his team used as their unofficial headquarters, and that is still on the Circus’s books even though it’s been decades since anyone noticed. It’s even inhabited by a Circus employee who’s been quietly living there the whole time.

This is not the only implausibility that blots the narrative. When Tulip decided to defect, it never occurred to anyone in London to make arrangements to bring along her beloved six-year-old son, so when she showed up with the boy in tow, her Circus handler had to improvise a way of sending him back to East Berlin on his own. When Tulip finally arrived in the UK, the top-secret Circus facility where she was debriefed had such pathetic security that an East German assassin was able to sneak in and kill her there—and he was captured only because he was hapless enough to step into a deer trap.

The twenty-first-century version of the Circus doesn’t seem particularly competent, either. Its managers are not only utterly clueless about the past of their organization but they fail to provide Guillam, their primary source for all of these events, with any meaningful security. They also allow him to roam about at will even though they’ve ordered him not to. (For some reason they think that confiscating his British passport will be enough to keep him on the leash. Didn’t it occur to them that the man is a highly experienced intelligence officer?) Despite his threatening demeanor, Christoph ultimately reveals himself to be a broken man in search of comforting closure. The whole story comes across as an oddly rickety construct, sharply at odds with le Carré’s usual devotion to realism anchored in sharply reported detail.

And who should pop up in the last pages of the book but Smiley himself, glowing with rude health? Even those fans who are keen for a fresh encounter with their hero are likely to find this a bit much. Call for the Dead describes Smiley being recruited to the Circus as an Oxford undergraduate in 1928, which would put his current age at around 110 or so. Some of the other books cast him as a decade or so younger, but even that would still make him a centenarian. (In a recent interview with The New York Times, le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, jokingly describes Smiley as currently “about 120.”) Here’s the scene in which Guillam finally tracks Smiley down at a German university where the former spymaster has closeted himself with his German poets:

I was relieved to see that no unpleasant surprise awaited me. It was the same George, just grown into the age he had always seemed to be: but George in red pullover and bright-yellow corduroys, which startled me because I’d only ever seen him in a bad suit. And if his features in repose retained their owlish sadness, there was no sadness in his greeting as, with a burst of energy, he bounded to his feet and grasped my hand in both of his.

In his seclusion, Smiley hasn’t heard anything of the lawsuit, but reacts to the news with “such unbridled fury as I had never heard in him” and immediately pledges to make it all go away. It turns out that he’s known about Christoph and Gustav, Tulip’s son, all along, and he knows what must be done. “I shall make a deposition. I shall swear to it. I shall offer myself as a witness to the truth. In whatever court they choose.” The author leaves us with the clear sense that the whole lawsuit is a phantom that will evaporate once Smiley returns to London and waves his hand. The book’s central plot device, in short, is almost casually revealed to be a joke.

Le Carré belongs to that select group of writers who have created characters so vivid that they transcend their fictional origins, and I can easily imagine why he might have decided to revisit Smiley once again. For me, the jarring climax of A Legacy of Spies was the rough equivalent of Arthur Conan Doyle conjuring up a final story in which Holmes has abandoned sleuthing in favor of cocaine-free wedded bliss with Irene Adler and a new life as a jolly concert violinist.4 Yet surely there are many other Smiley-lovers who are willing to forgive le Carré his creative liberties in return for the chance to spend a few more diverting hours in the company of their hero. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this book takes us back in time to the precise moment when le Carré, now eighty-six, first brought Smiley to life. One senses that, after a quarter-century lapse, the author had unfinished business with his most famous creation, and wanted to part on good terms. Who can really begrudge him that?


Despite its flaws, A Legacy of Spies is a remarkably satisfying read. Even middling le Carré is still miles ahead of any of the other thrillers produced today, and quite a lot of mainstream fiction, too. No one else in contemporary literature can compete with the creator of the Circus when it comes to rendering character through dialogue. Few can rival him when it comes to the craft of storytelling. He mines the stuff of politics and current affairs with an ease and vitality that others can only envy.

So how does he do it, and how has he managed to keep it up for the past half-century? Not that long ago we would have been reduced to reading tea leaves and scraping through the occasional interview. (Most fans knew that his 1986 novel A Perfect Spy purported to retell a lot of his life story, but this was a bit like an agent’s false identity that sprinkles in a few authentic details for the sake of a more effective deception.) Sisman’s biography can help us understand the origins of le Carré’s artistry.

David Cornwell’s father, Ronald, was a professional con artist, a serial bankrupt, and a charming huckster who spent several stints in jail. His mother Olive, who couldn’t deal with her husband’s philandering and physical abuse, abandoned the family when David was five years old; his father beguiled his sons for years with fake stories about her absence until they finally figured out the truth. As he grew up, David quite naturally sought out a surrogate father figure, and found one in a teacher at his boarding school named Vivian Green, an erudite historian who would become one of the primary models for the future George Smiley.5

At Green’s urging, the young Cornwell set off to learn German in Switzerland, where through a twist of fate he was recruited to carry out odd jobs for British intelligence. Later he worked for MI5, the British Internal Security Service, in his undergraduate years at Oxford. His primary job: informing on classmates who were suspected of Soviet sympathies. (Sisman describes an interesting confrontation, decades later, between the author and one of those he informed on.) At Oxford Cornwell also reconnected with his old friend Green, who had become a tutor there. After graduation he embarked on a short but fruitful career as a member of the Secret Intelligence Service—a part of his life he still declines to discuss in any detail, citing the secrecy oath he took when he joined.

He wrote his first novel when he was still a civil servant, and soon quit the world of intelligence when he realized that writing was a more satisfying outlet. Yet both of his professions—spy and novelist—had more in common with his father’s world than could be easily dismissed: “I’m a liar,” he tells us bluntly in The Pigeon Tunnel (2016), a series of autobiographical reminiscences. “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist.” One wishes that other fiction writers were as candid about their motives.

Sisman marshals persuasive evidence to bolster the claim that Cornwell-cum-le Carré has spent his life trying to write his way out of the trauma of his stranger-than-fiction childhood. After divorcing his first wife, le Carré married Jane Eustace, who worked at his publishing house, and the two have lived ever since in what Sisman depicts as a shared mission of devotion to le Carré’s muse. When he isn’t writing, he’s despondent. When he’s at work, he can lose himself in long stretches of eighteen-hour days; he has been known to discard nearly completed manuscripts and start over from scratch when he feels that he’s on the wrong track. One of his greatest strengths is a startling gift for mimicry that has contributed to his command of dialogue and his facility with languages.

All of which casts a revealing light on le Carré’s latest book. His story of adult children still haunted by absent parents assumes an unexpected resonance. Christoph and Gustav and the daughter of Liz Gold aren’t the only children who share this fate in the book. So, too, does Peter Guillam, the narrator of the story, whose father was a member of the French Resistance during World War II, working on British orders, and who died at the hands of Gestapo torturers. Fans already know from le Carré’s other books, and especially those of the Karla trilogy, that Guillam has always viewed Smiley as a kind of substitute father within the Circus, their adopted home; Smiley’s mysterious absence until the last pages of A Legacy of Spies echoes a greater loss. And not to put too fine a point on it, but I was struck by the fact that Gustav, the son of the defector Tulip, was abandoned by his mother at the age of six, only a year older than Cornwell when his own mother abandoned him.

I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that the Smiley novels can be viewed as a roman-fleuve built on a family romance: the complex intimacies of the secret world are the prerequisite of grand and echoing betrayals. It was Magnus Pym, the protagonist of le Carré’s autobiographical novel A Perfect Spy, who stated what might count as the governing conundrum of le Carré’s haunted world: “Love is whatever you can still betray…. Betrayal can only happen if you love.”

There is, perhaps, one small consolation for le Carré’s devoted readers. We are parting company with George Smiley at precisely the moment when technology is well on its way to effacing the world in which he flourished. Online influence operations, mobile phone tracking, facial recognition technology, and gait analysis (in which computers track each person’s unique walk)—all unmentioned in A Legacy of Spies—are quickly eliminating the world that gave us the scruffy but oh-so-human Circus. It is indeed quite possible that the very genre of the spy novel is already becoming historical.

In this sense, le Carré’s timing is impeccable. There couldn’t be a better moment to say good-bye.