Into the Cold: A George Smiley Primer

It has been nearly 30 years since George Smiley’s last appearance in The Secret Pilgrim. Here’s a refresher of the master spy’s collected adventures.


Call for the Dead (1961)

Samuel Fennan—a civil servant who had been anonymously accused of being a communist—committed suicide following a routine security check conducted by Smiley. Smiley’s boss, Maston, blames him for grilling Fennan excessively, but Smiley knows he didn’t interrogate the man beyond simple lines of questioning. In fact, he had let Fennan know he was in the clear. Now, because the suicide is an embarrassing detail to be swept under the rug, Smiley is being indirectly framed for Fennan’s death. One of my favorite lines in this debut adventure comes when Smiley wearily eyes his spineless boss, thinking, “You’re dangerous, Maston. You’re weak and frightened. Anyone’s neck before yours, I know. You’re looking at me that way—measuring me for the rope.”

Smiley visits Fennan’s wife, Elsa, at Maston’s encouraging, who nearly convinces Smiley that her husband was indeed driven to that point of severe depression by his meeting with Smiley. But fate intervenes when the phone rings. Smiley answers the call expecting it to be Maston, but it’s a wake-up reminder (from the dark ages, young readers, before cell phones) meant for Fennan. Why would a man planning to kill himself have requested to receive a wake-up call?

A Murder of Quality (1962)

Miss Brimley is an old friend of George Smiley (from his WWII exploits), and when she receives a letter from a woman named Stella Rode who claims her husband is trying to kill her, Brimley seeks Smiley’s counsel. Unfortunately, though, it’s too late. The woman has been murdered. Smiley agrees to take the letter to an Inspector Rigby, who Smiley takes an instant liking to—perhaps he’s looking into a mirror and sees himself. Rigby, Smiley observed, “imparted a feeling of honesty and straight dealing,” and because Rigby had heard “just a very little” of George Smiley’s service, he gladly accepts the help. Rigby and Smiley begin unraveling the threads of Mrs. Rode’s death—or as Smiley corresponds back to Brimley, “So I’ll just sniff around a bit.”

One of the joys of reading A Murder of Quality is savoring all the little morsels of invaluable knowledge—we don’t normally acquire—about Smiley, quite often from other’s perceptions:

Miss Brimley wondered what impression he made on those who did know him well. She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation.

Another colleague describes him even more colorfully, “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for.”

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)

Alec Leamas is working for The Circus (British clandestine organization), running spies in Berlin during the Cold War. He watches as one of his double agents is gunned down trying to cross into West Germany. Soon after, Leamas is recalled to England, which he assumes will be the beginning of the end of his career whereby he’ll be unceremoniously filed away at some desk job and left to rot. Instead, his boss (codenamed Control) asks him to stay out in the cold a little bit longer and help them catch a top spy. The Circus realizes that the down-on-his-luck Leamas will be too enticing for the communists to resist. Leamas further sweetens the deal by getting himself thrown in jail for six months and doubling down on his alcohol intake. It works. He’s spotted by the East German intelligence service, known collectively as the Abteilung, who slowly begin wining and dining him until he’s taken to the Netherlands and then to East Germany for further questioning.

George Smiley was the central character of le Carré’s first two novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. The beauty of Smiley’s presence in The Spy is that he is, for the most part, just a presence in the background. He is the puppeteer, if you will, albeit a very strong mastermind who’s pulling the strings.

Control claims that Smiley isn’t particularly happy with the plan that they have concocted. Later, when The Circus meets with Leamas for a covert update, they choose Smiley’s home for the meeting—but he’s conveniently not there. Though, when Leamas is being whisked away by the enemy to begin his interrogation, Smiley is watching Leamas at the airport:

As they pushed their way through the revolving glass door, Leamas looked back. Standing at the newspaper kiosk, deep in a copy of the Continental Daily Mail, stood a small, froglike figure in glasses, an earnest, worried little man. He looked like a civil servant. Something like that.

The Looking Glass War (1965)

In le Carré’s fourth novel, The Looking Glass War, events are skewed. A spy mission has been outsourced to a commercial airline pilot whose assignment is to photograph an area near the West German border where Soviet missiles are allegedly being deployed. Later, at the airport’s bar, the pilot fervently confronts the courier, named Taylor, while other patrons listen in on the spectacle of the supposed covert operation in which Russian MIGs had come close to blowing his plane—with a full complement of unsuspecting passengers—out of the sky. Taylor, employed by The Department, gets the film handoff. Soon after, however, he is struck and killed by a vehicle, and the thirty-five millimeter of aerial photos are lost in a snowbank, ending part one of a mission of thorough futility.

Smiley was front and center for le Carré’s first two novels and had a vital role in the third, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. That book was a watershed moment in which le Carré intended to rip the lid off the espionage community by revealing its deep-rooted weaknesses. It had the opposite effect, however, making a hero out of the world-weary main protagonist, Alec Leamas, instead. The author conveys his regret in the foreword to The Looking Glass War that The Spy had “glamorized the spy business to Kingdom Come.”

Le Carré wasn’t taking any chances with the satirical follow-up exposing the apathy and incompetence that makes up the British spy community. Unfortunately, by having Smiley involved, it takes us out of the sardonic proceedings a bit too much. Le Carré was shooting for a stark contrast between the efficient Circus and the lackluster Department, but instead, it’s slightly jarring as fictional worlds collide. A misfire still worth reading.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)

Tinker, Tailor opens in late 1973 with a discredited Smiley forcibly resigned from The Circus, along with his boss and mentor Control (who dies soon after from natural complications), after a mission goes horribly wrong—an assignment Smiley had helped shepherd. An agent named Jim Prideaux was shot and apprehended by Russian soldiers and then later tortured. Smiley now fritters his days longing for his wayward wife, Lady Ann, and fearing “that one day, out of a past so complex that he himself could not remember all the enemies he might have made, one of them would find him and demand the reckoning.”

The man who comes calling is a former subordinate and friend named Peter Guillam, who still works for The Circus, though in a more limited capacity—or, as he explains it, that “under lateralism our autonomy is cut to the bone.” The motive for Guillam’s visit: a field agent named Ricki Tarr—a scalp-hunter whose job is to recruit foreign agents and flip them for British intelligence—falls in love with a woman named Irina, who claims she has information on a mole codenamed Gerald who is at the very top of The Circus and working for a man named Karla. Irina tells Tarr, “Have you heard of Karla? He is an old fox, the most cunning in the centre, the most secret; even his name is not a name that Russians understand.” But before London can bring her in for further debriefing, she’s snatched away by the Russians.

Tarr, on the run, eventually turns to Guillam and Oliver Lacon (who oversees the spy services) with Irina’s information. Now, with a traitor in the mists and no one else to turn to, Smiley is recruited for the hardest assignment of them all: to spy on the spies.

The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the intelligence officer was surreptitiously tapped to track down a mole—a bellicose cancer—burrowed within The Circus. Smiley pinpointed and exposed the double agent as Bill Haydon. Haydon had been recruited by a Russian operative, known only as Karla, when he was a student at Oxford, and in his succeeding 30-year tenure within the British espionage service, he had climbed to the upper ranks, nearly crippling The Circus with his duplicity. Smiley, subsequently appointed to the role of interim caretaker, has the formidable task of restoring an organization that’s been torn to tatters.

After the unmasking of the traitor, a majority of the agency’s information networks have run cold, and the organization is in danger of being shut down. The building in which Smiley and his team work has been ripped to shreds by the “ferrets” in search of wiretaps and other spy devices, serving as a sobering reminder of their state of affairs. And with the systematic clearing of dubious Circus personal, the agency has become a skeletal apparatus in fear of itself. Even Smiley feels the impact: “The circles around him grew smaller as they grew nearer, and precious few in the early days reached the centre,” le Carré writes. Smiley adheres to the old axiom, “The best defense is a good offense,” by devising a stratagem with the help of fellow confidants Connie Sachs and Doc di Salis (others include reliable standby Peter Guillam and a factotum named Fawn), focusing their energies on cases that Haydon went out of his way to bury.

Smiley’s People (1979)

Oliver Lacon of the Cabinet Office should go easy on Smiley; after all, it was Smiley who unearthed the mole in Tinker, Tailor and then re-established The Circus as a viable spy organization in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) when it was in danger of being defunded. However, when General Vladimir, formerly of the Soviet Union and spy for the Brits, is murdered following a cryptic message that he has some vital information, Lacon pressures the retired agent—since Vladimir had been one of his contacts in the old days—to clean up the spilled milk and put it back in the bottle where it belongs.

Lacon and his bureaucratic peers have little use for the general’s intel, aside from putting it to rest quietly and maintaining the idea that he was an old fool trying to relive a glorious past. As Lacon warns, the events surrounding Vladimir’s murder could stir an unnecessary risk to the organization, particularly at this stage of its rebirth. Lacon stipulates, clearly aware of who he is addressing, not to go nosing around for additional information … just make sure all loose ends are neatly tied up.

Fat chance. When Smiley learns General Vladimir had fresh data on Smiley’s arch rival, Karla, that’s the one loose thread he can’t help but tug free. A nemesis (whose full, how-do-they-get-that-on-a-plaque title is Chief of the Thirteenth Directorate within Soviet Intelligence) stretching far back in Smiley’s career, Karla had crippled The Circus by placing a mole at the very top of the organization, ultimately discrediting Smiley and his mentor, Control. After all these years, though, Karla has gotten sloppy, and Smiley begins using Karla’s missteps, as well as a few of his enemy’s strategies, to his advantage. Le Carré writes that Smiley felt “the drum-beat of his own past, summoning him to one last effort to externalise and resolve the conflict he had lived by.”

The Secret Pilgrim (1990)

We finally see Smiley getting some well-deserved respect as a revered elder statesman who is imparting his cloak and dagger expertise to an adoring and insatiable audience. Throughout the book, le Carré uses Smiley’s lecture as a framework for a spy named Ned’s own reminisces—where Smiley strolls to and fro like an omnipresent Gandalf the Grey—building up the honor of an otherwise overlooked hero.

Pilgrim opens with Smiley addressing the class, lamenting aspects of The Circus’s past, as Ned looks on:

“If I regret anything at all, it’s the way we wasted our time and skills. All the false alleys, and bogus friends, the misapplication of our energies. All the delusions we had about who we were.” He replaced his spectacles and, as I fancied, turned his smile upon myself. And suddenly I felt like one of my own students. It was the sixties again. I was a fledgling spy, and George Smiley—tolerant, patient, clever George—was observing my first attempts at flight.

Le Carré then rewinds the clock’s hands, and we glimpse the callow Ned—a newbie operative who almost torpedoes his career before it has hardly started when he mistakes a bodyguard of a diplomat he’s trailing for a terrorist and nearly kills the bloke. His pride was wounded on that particular misadventure, but his innocence is soon lost forever when his best friend and fellow spy, Ben, goes into hiding because his entire Berlin network is compromised. Enter Smiley, who begins tugging the threads, questioning Ned, planting seeds, and generally setting him up as a Judas Goat for The Circus. Ned thinks he’s outsmarted the master spy—covered his trail—only to come up short.


  1. Alan Williams

    There are so many good books here, and I’d forgotten about some of the earlier ones, so I might have to go back and reread those. I’m pleased that Smiley is making a return, although not entirely sure what to expect for the return. I guess I’ll just have to read it!

  2. Albert Tucher

    “Dressed like a bookie.” Is it the same colleague who mentions that Smiley allows his tailor to take “shameless liberties?”

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