After the Russian mole, Bill Haydon, was found and removed from his high-level position within the Circus (British intelligence service), George Smiley was asked to run the Circus, clean things up, and restore the Circus’ standing with the Cousins (the Americans). Smiley closed down most of the intelligence operations throughout the world, if it was possible the Russians knew about them, including High Haven in Hong Kong. One of the operatives in Hong Kong, Craw, discovered it, disappeared to Australia (ostensibly) researching, and unlike all the other members of the press club whose stories were killed, came out with a news article on how British Intelligence had needed to close down its operations worldwide—a Circus tactic to persuade Russia that they had been critically hurt.
Hayden had destroyed a lot of files relating to Russia, but Smiley used the topics of the missing files to back-trace what the Russians were interested in hiding. The only concrete lead that they found was a consistent payments to some shady characters in Vientiane, from there to Bangkok, and thence to a bank account in Hong Kong. The former field agent in that Vientiane, Sam Collins, confirmed some of the information, but was cagey about some of the details. Jerry Westerby was removed from his Italian digs and sent to Hong Kong under the guise of a reporter. He bullied one of the high-level British men in the bank into giving Westerby access to information about this account, which Westerby photographs and then meets with Craw to have developed. The account was under the trusteeship of a Drake Ko, an émigré to Hong Kong from mainland China and now rich, but the beneficiary was identified only by a fingerprint. Westerby discovered that Ko had a deceased brother named Nelson who was important to him (his racehorse was named “Nelson” and yacht was named “The Admiral Nelson”).
Further inquiries, some in partnership with the Cousins, revealed that a Ricardo had flown planes carrying opium into China from Vientiane for Ko, and that Ricardo had a mistress named Lizzie Worthington. After that ended she worked for a Mr. Mellon—Collin’s work name—and it appeared that she was now Ko’s mistress under the name Liese Worth. Ko and his brother had been taken in as orphans by a British missionary couple in Shanghai. Nelson sided with the communists, but Drake was fond of the wife, named “Liese” and who had blond hair, for she was a sort of mother to him. Nelson had risen in the Communist government, and had gone to Russia for education while relations were still good. It seemed likely that he was recruited by Karla—head of Russian Intelligence—as a mole within China. Back in China the Cultural Revolution removed him from his post (ties to Russia were not rewarded at that time), but eventually made his way back into very top leadership.
Armed with that information, Smiley wanted to smoke out Ko to see what he would do, and assigned Westerby to the task. First he “chanced” into Lizzie at a party and asked to interview her to confirm some theories that his paper had about their business in Vientiane. Then he was sent to Vientiane to find Ricardo and alert with the same tactic that their secret was out. Ricardo was hard to find, and Westerby had to search and fly to Phnom Phen—the Khmer Rouge were just on the verge of capturing the city—with a side trip to another city, and then to Thailand. Along the way he discovered that Ricardo was in a precarious situation where Ko basically owned him. Lizzie had made a deal where Ko bought his debt in exchange for her, but Ko required him to commit further drug smuggling crimes which meant he was essentially not free. Westerby found Ricardo in the middle of the Thai jungle, with the cover story of asking his partnership in profiting from blackmailing Ko. Ricardo appeared to agree, but then put a bomb in Westerby’s car. Noticing that the gas tank need had not moved during the drive back, Westerby exited the car in haste, since he had heard talk about Khmer people putting a grenade under the car with the hose to the gauge attached to the grenade so that the gasoline would slowly dissolve the rubber that held the pin in place. Westerby noticed just in time, and had a long way back to the American base, where he sent his findings back to London.
Via the Cousins’ network, the Circus sent Westerby a telegram thanking him for doing the job and ordering him back to London but not repeat not to Hong Kong. Westerby knew that something was up with Ko, knew that Lizzie’s drug smuggling record would put her in danger, and he had been smitten by her beauty. He had also seen the aftermath of the horrible death of Mr. Frost, the Hong Kong bank officer who had revealed the information about Ko’s account. He decided it was his duty to rescue her, and went rogue. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, he discovers the death of Luke, a sometime friend and fellow pressman at the same paper.
Meanwhile Smiley and the Cousins had learned that Ko was going to smuggle Nelson out of China, and they wanted to intercept him for interrogation. They set up camp in Hong Kong, having presumably blackmailed Lizzie for information. Westerby visited Lizzie just before Smiley came up, and assuming Smiley was Ko, attempts to kill him, only the painfully attacked by the former assassin that watched over Smiley. Recognizing that Westerby was rogue (and rather painfully, as Smiley had personally recruited Westerby), he had the assassin and his assistant, Guillam, escort Westerby to London. On the way to the airport, Westerby took advantage of stopped traffic and his Circus training to injure both the assassin and Guillam and escape from the car. He went back to get Lizzie, who went with him, and she told him what she had told Smiley. Like Smiley, it was enough for Westerby to deduce that Ko was meeting his brother (although she never said anything of the sort).
Westerby and Lizzie chartered a boat to Tan Poi island, at the edge of Chinese waters, where there was a festival to Tin Hau going on. Through Lizzie’s information, Westerby found the location where Ko was going to receive his brother. He sent Lizzie back for her safety, and Lizzie insisted that he tell Ko that she had kept the deal, since Ko had always kept his deals and that was important to him. Westerby waited at the cove until night fell, then incapacitated Ko’s bodyguard, and made a deal with Ko: the information that the Americans were going to kidnap his brother in exchange for Lizzie. Ko acquiesced, but he and his brother were too emotional at their meeting and delayed too long, allowing the Americans to grab Nelson (and shoot Westerby).
Smiley himself was betrayed. He had arranged with the Cousins that the Circus had primacy in the operation and first dibs on the information. Behind his back, however, Collins, in cooperation with Lacon (the sub-Minister over the Circus) and another official in the Ministry) made a deal with the head of the London Cousins to give the Cousins first access to Nelson in exchange for kicking out Smiley and installing them in charge of the Circus.
This is a story with so many twists and turns that it is hard to tell if I do not understand who is doing what because I forgot some piece of information or because it has not yet been revealed. Despite that, it is a gripping account, with vivid characters. Each character has their own motivations and personality. Craw, for instance, has a gentlemanly habit of flowery language and calling people “sir”, while Westerby is much more relaxed and always calling people “sport”. Each has their own story, even the brief, sad characters like lonely Phoebe, an half-Chinese, half “round-eye” local informant that Craw carefully cultivates through praising her work and an almost-romance.
Similarly, Le Carré excels at details. For instance, Westerby can tell the difference between a surveillance van run by the Cousins because they use too much equipment. Similarly, the Cousins have a reputation for being brutal and heavy-handed within the Circus. But the environmental details are just fantastic He wrote the book while on location in Hong Kong and Vietnam during the Vietnam War, even visiting the front, and it shows. Little details like the parquet flooring in Hong Kong, which if you have ever visited you will have seen (at least until somewhat recently). The sights of Hong Kong, the steep and narrow roads, the temples, the fact that an important man like Ko insists on being a fortune teller’s first client of the day while his connection with the spirits is still fresh, the incessant construction. (He does not comment on the speed with which double-decker buses whip around tight curves on steep mountain roads that drop off precipitously to the sides, defying the visual instincts that surely the bus is going to tip over, so I assume that they must have been fewer or non-existent when he was there.)
Like it’s predecessor, the lives of the characters in this story are pretty dismal, particularly their love lives. The best is the middle-aged womanizer Guillam, who at least is lusting after a colleague in the Circus instead of a college student who is clandestinely married; however, she is still a good fifteen years younger at least. Smiley’s Ann no longer has any pretense of being faithful, which pains Smiley. However, he has always seen his work as service to his country and more important, and if he is indeed to be the victim of conspiracy, then it will be the judgment of his peers. But Westerby is just flat-out a sex addict, and while he feels like he loves Lizzie, his actions appear pretty selfish. And futile in the end, for he dies and she is charged with drug trafficking (while Ko remains the Big Sir who never gets punished). It remains unclear whether Le Carré is commenting on the quality of life as a spy, or whether this is normal for him.
His views on the intelligence service seem clearer. Although Smiley cares very much for the safety of the field officers, still it is they who pay the cost of the intelligence that Smiley values so much for his country. Even Smiley, who lives for his country, ends up without a wife, sleeping at work, obsessed with getting revenge at Karla for the destruction that he wrought through Haydon. Connie Sachs is a peerless expert on Russia and without her research the Dolphin project would not have got off the ground, yet she appears to be an alcoholic and is kicked to the curb in the management change, too. And after all the personal sacrifice and expert strategizing to both get the information and credit to the British, the government throws it all away so that underlings can advance their career. This time Karla has no mole, but the Circus still manages to sabotage itself without him.
This is a deep story through a maze of twisty passages, with a cast of grim yet very vivid and lifelike characters, in a secretive world where even friends are enemies. It is engaging, insightful, and gripping to the end.