“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 skin on a shrunken toad.” That tag at the start of John LeCarré’s first espionage novel conspicuously describes the master spy, George Smiley. Call for the Dead, published in 1961 at the height of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, draws a sharp contrast between the suave 007 and the frumpy Smiley. Around the same time, Len Deighton’s unnamed spy was also published, further playing against Fleming’s popular creation, but Deighton’s protagonist (named Harry Palmer in the films) is a nerdy cool agent with gourmet skills to boot and also, like Bond, is quite successful with the ladies. LeCarré’s Smiley has no such natural gimmicks as good looks or effortless magnetism to fall back on when the chips are down.
Smiley does have two gifts that eventually tip the scales in his favor. One is his analytical mind (perhaps the greatest since Nero Wolfe, if not Sherlock Holmes) that dissects intricate spy-web evils. And the other is patience on the Methuselah scale—he studies and plans long before he leaps. Sure, you may prefer Bond in a firefight or Palmer to dine alongside at a five-star restaurant, but Smiley is the agent you would call on in a world of bureaucratic hijinks and calculating double agents that litter both sides of the Atlantic. He’s the real deal.