John le Carre fans, take note: Smiley’s still in the spy game

More than 50 years after making his literary debut, le Carré’s beloved character is still in the spy game.

Lit Life

True confession. I hold novelist John le Carré’s greatest creation, the spy George Smiley, in such high regard that I named my dog after him. My corgi is not nearly as smart as George Smiley, and he doesn’t have George’s paunch. The name is a pure and heartfelt tribute to a character that has given me endless hours of pleasure over many years of reading.

George Smiley, the master spy in le Carré’s espionage universe, appears in many of the author’s novels, including “A Legacy of Spies,” the author’s latest, which publishes Sept. 5 (look for a review in next week’s Seattle Times). In “Legacy,” in a story told mostly in retrospect, George, a man with “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin,” is still in the spy game.

Le Carré, a former agent of the British intelligence service, created a world of spies and spying so compelling that real spies now use his made-up terminology — he was the first in the West to use the word “mole” for a “penetrative” agent, a spy embedded in an intelligence service who is actually spying for the enemy. George Smiley, a tormented Englishman with an anguished heart and a will of iron, is the moral center of this amoral world. As one of Smiley’s spies says of his boss: “not a natural player of the spying game, George. Don’t know how he got himself into it. Took it all on his own shoulders. Can’t do that in our trade. Can’t feel all the other chaps’ pain as well as your own. Not if you want to carry on.”

But George did carry on. Here’s a list of books and movies with stories that turn on George’s brilliance, his dogged determination and his much-tested love of England:

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Call for the Dead” (1961) and “A Murder of Quality” (1962). Smiley made his debut appearance in “Call for the Dead” and its follow-up. Le Carré, real name David Cornwell, was still working for British intelligence when he wrote these early books (hence the pen name), and his conflicted views of his work shaped his creation of Smiley. George actually resigns in protest from the service in “Call” — the first of several such resignations/retirements over several books — but not before unraveling an East German spy ring. In “Murder” he’s still out to…

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