A mirthless Russian official “asks” an elderly Russian emigre (Ostrakov) in Paris to sponsor her daughter’s French citizenship but she never sees the daughter and sends a letter to General Vladimir in London; a former Russian general living in London calls Smiley (who is no longer at the Circus) asking for a meeting and insists on “Moscow Rules” but is killed en route. The minister in charge of the Circus, Lacon, requests Smiley to investigate.
Smiley visits the General’s flat; the General was a defector to the West but the Circus had not been able to afford him a large stipend. Unable to find the proof the the General said he was bringing in the flat, Smiley retraced the General’s steps. “Moscow Rules” means to be able to dispose of everything you are carrying if you are followed, and Smiley finds a package of cigarettes with a photographic negative rolled inside them, tucked in a tree. He visits another former agent—his wife is very upset that her husband still has dealings with the Circus—who tells him he acted as courier of the photograph from a city in Germany. The negative turns out to be a photograph of two men with prostitutes. One of them is Leipzig, a sometime informant—historically of rather questionable veracity—living in Germany. Giving the General’s insistence that it concerns “the Sandman”, Leipzig seems to have acquired some concrete evidence that could smoke out Karla. Karla is the director-dictator of the “Moscow Central” intelligence agency, and the nemesis of Smiley, who had once unsuccessfully tried to convince him to defect; Karla later used information Smiley revealed to have his mole in the Circus seduce Smiley’s wife Ann.
Smiley pays a visit to Connie Sachs, now close to death and largely alcoholic, but with her prodigious memory (and meandering story-telling habit) intact, and finds out the details on Leipzig and the other man in the photograph, Kirov, as well as the information that Karla had a daughter. Apparently the daughter did not take to the revolutionary agenda and was a wild child, but Karla consistently took care of her.
Smiley visits the scene of the photograph, a nightclub in Hamburg owned by an Herr Kretzschmar. Extremely comfortable in German, Smiley shows the photograph to Kretzschmar and gets details that Leipzig, who was passionately devoted to taking down the Russians, had got information on Kirov and had tried to blackmail him with Kretzshmar providing the venue and taking the photograph. Kretzschmar gives Smiley directions to Leipzig and repeatedly asks if Smiley has any documents for him. Upon arriving at Leipzig’s boat, he finds the situation rather tense, with Leipzing not having emerged from his boat single two singular men visited him for a loud party some days before. Smiley finds Leipzig dead and the cabin (as well as his car) torn up looking for something unsuccessfully. Smiley noticed a fishing line and pulled up a boot, which had a waterproof package tucked in the toe with a torn postcard. Extricating his hired-car from the boys who where hammering on the boot of the car, Smiley drives back to the train station.
The boys had made the car highly visible and very loud, and then called the police. So Smiley backed the car into a spot in the station car-park, took off the license plates, put the keys in the exhaust, and bought some clothes—one at different shops, for someone who buys and entire set of clothes is remembered, but not someone who buys just one piece. He phones the airport requesting information about flights to London and upgrades his seat; then he changes his clothes and returns to Kretzshmar with the postcard. It matches the other half that he has, and is the token that Smiley is to receive audio tapes that Kretzshmar recorded of the event with Leipzing and Kirov.
Then Smiley mails his (fake) passport to Australia, phones the airport asking about his flight, and takes the train to Paris using his real name. Ostrakov had had an attempt on her life recently, but survived and wrote a letter to General Vladimir, which had come into Smiley’s possession. Since the Russians had been killing anyone in connection with this case, she was in danger, and Smiley brings her to London for her safety. Then he meets with his replacement director of the Circus, with the information that they have the evidence necessary to get Karla, and receives permission to conduct a (deniable) operation.
Toby Esterhase, glad to be back in the field again, sets up the operation. Karla has been sending money to a Russian diplomat in Berne, Grigoriev, who uses it to pay for a young, female patient in a Swiss mental hospital, with the family name of Ostrakov, as well as living in a larger style for the sake of his wife. Esterhase finds that Grigoriev is not at all “professional”, so it is easy to stake out his movements and prepare a plan. The day of happens perfectly. Grigoriev is watching an outdoor game of chess using person-sized pieces, when Esterhase quietly and forcefully escorts him to a car, suggesting that he needs to talk about some irregularities. Grigoriev is hesitant, but as Esterhase brings up more knowledge of said irregularities he hesitates and gets in the car, and is ushered into a flat at the destination, where Smiley is seated and waiting for his arrival.
A successful burn requires fear, which Smiley provides by having him look at various images and documents laid out in a compelling manner (and which the freedom to telephone someone after he has seen them). In this he is successful, but a successful burn also requires cooperation, and sometimes the target prefers to be obstinate and burn rather than go along with the blackmail. What really gets his cooperation is when they run out of time and need to have him phone his wife that he will be late. He is obstinate—his wife does not trust him at all (with good reason, it turns out)—but when Smiley suggests that he say it is because of State Secrets he gets all excited to be able to have power over his wife for once.
In his questioning Smiley plays the part of an officious but disinterested government worker—the sort Grigoriev is familiar with from the Soviet Union—as Smiley continually asks for irrelevant details so that Grigoriev ends up providing lots of details to forestall the requests. Never breaking character, Smiley is successful in coaxing a detailed description of how Karla blackmailed him into providing for “an wilful daughter of a hero of the Revolution”, in exchange for not revealing his philandering, which would ruin his diplomatic career and access to the lifestyle his wife hounds him for, as well as an upgrade in that life. (For his part, Smiley offered asylum in the West for Grigoriev’s cooperation).
Every week Grigoriev receives questions from a Moscow Center courier to ask Karla’s daughter written in multiple invisible inks (Smiley asks for details of the chemicals) in-between the lines of an innocuous letter and returns the answers from the previous week. Smiley has Grigoriev send Karla a blackmail letter—defect to the West (and be willing to talk), or have his secrets exposed, giving his enemies the fodder they need to take him out, with rather dim prospects for his daughter.
The team then meets at the crossing of the Berlin Wall—carefully, since everywhere around it is bugged, and defectors are shot. A lone man walks across the narrow bridge. Smiley suddenly wants the East Germans to shoot Karla, he had destroyed the Circus’ networks with his mole, permanently broken the connection between him and his wife, killed with abandoned, and caused much destruction. But Karla arrives safely. Smiley’s long quest to get Karla is fittingly concluded, but Smiley is unable to rejoice with the others, for he had to use Karla’s repulsive methods to do it.
Once again Le Carré spins a tale with vivid characters and rich (relevant) detail. Smiley is a detective tracing back the thread of information to discover what General Vladimir was so sure about. Along the way we meet Russian emigres, sketchy informants, nightclub owners, former coworkers of Smiley’s, diplomats, and even the elusive Karla himself (although ever-so briefly, so that he still remains effectively unknown). We see Smiley longing for Ann, but forever estranged from her, made official when Smiley sees no point to pick up the Ann’s gift to him after an early infidelity that Karla had taken at their first meeting and which he drops as soon as he crosses the border. We see Smiley at the height of his skill as a field agent and interrogator and at his greatest success, yet it brings no joy to use the methods of evil to bring down evil. We also get tips on how to disappear when you are too visible, how to question someone so that they spill details they do not know are important, and even principles of an effective blackmail operation. All this with rich detail and a fitting conclusion to Smiley’s service with the Circus.