Chasing after Smiley

This first appeared on the Open letters website.

Towards the end of 2009, when I was completing the final draft of a book called Slow Horses, I already had in mind the novel I’d write next. But I’ve mercifully forgotten its details (there are few things sadder than an unwritten book), because when it came to the crunch, I didn’t want to write it, or at least, I wanted to write Dead Lions more. Not that Dead Lions then had a title, or a plot, or anything much except the same cast of characters as Slow Horses, and this was the attraction – I wanted to kick around with those guys a bit longer. I knew what they looked like, what they sounded like; I wanted to know whether their group dynamic would change as a result of the first book, and the only way to find out was to write another. That was when I knew I’d embarked on a long-term relationship.

Genre fiction, of course, is rife with such relationships, some happier than others. Detectives, especially, have complex histories with their makers. Agatha Christie grew to loathe Poirot so much, she bumped him off quite early in her career and locked the corpse in a bank vault, while Sayers adored Peter Wimsey to the extent of creating an alter ego, Harriet Vane, so she could marry him. More recently, PD James confessed in an interview on BBC Radio 4 that she wouldn’t start another Adam Dalgliesh novel because she couldn’t be sure of finishing it, one implication being that she can’t bear the thought of anyone else finishing it for her; an almost inevitable outcome, given today’s publishing imperatives.

Imposing figures all, but for those working in the spy genre, the shadow we’re most obviously standing in is that cast by John le Carré, and no matter how many novels le Carré writes, the character with whom he’ll always be associated is George Smiley. Smiley is to the spy thriller what Holmes is to the detective story, except (whisper this) altogether more credible. He had a long career, too, with a couple of investigations under his belt before small but crucial roles in
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Looking Glass War, but it’s the famous trilogy in which his story takes on epic stature. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People: these three novels amount to a long hard look at an ideological battleground on which no flag was left untattered, and represent a daunting achievement in the genre (as well as bequeathing, as an unintended consequence, what appears to have become an extra commandment for thriller writers: “Thou shalt bang out a trilogy sooner or later”).

With the closing of the third volume came a definite sense of ending; a triumph, if one earned at some moral cost to the victor, and a lowering of the curtain. le Carré’s subsequent novels indicated that he was moving on to fresh fields, and he’s continued exploring new ground ever since, an important figure of dissent and courage in an increasingly neutered literary landscape. But not without taking a backward glance … In 1990, to the surprise of many, le Carré published a coda to those earlier works,
The Secret Pilgrim, in which Smiley makes a final appearance – his last bow. Fittingly, it’s less an addition to the Smiley canon than an excuse for nostalgic rumination. The Cold War was over, hotter ones were being kindled, and if the future might require Smiley’s mental agility, it could probably do without his scruples. So it’s hard not to see the book as le Carré’s fond adieu to the old war-horse; a leave-taking which allowed a new generation to cluster round Smiley’s feet, and hear a few last stories from a time before “extraordinary rendition” and “predator drones” became common currency. However it was meant it seems right and fitting both that an author should make a public farewell to a beloved character, and that the character himself should be allowed a dignified exit:

He stood up abruptly, as if shaking himself free of something that threatened to hold him too tight. Then, very deliberately, he treated himself to a last slow look around the room – not at the students any more, but at the old photographs and trophies of his time, apparently committing them to memory. He was taking leave of his house after he had bequeathed it to his heirs …

“Yes. Well. Goodnight. And thanks. Oh, and tell them to spy on the ozone layer, will you, Ned? It’s dreadfully hot in St. Agnes for the time of year.”

He left without looking back.

That’s the way to do it. All characters reach their destinations one way or another, but this departure’s far more fitting for George than a heart attack in an Oxford quad, or a bullet in Amsterdam, or even – cruellest of all – an after-life as a franchise, that circle of hell reserved for fictions too enduring for their own good.

He’s still around, “keeping bees somewhere”, as le Carré said as recently as 2010. I keep an eye out for him whenever I’m in the Cotswolds, Shropshire, Devon … As for work, after a 20-month gap writing other things, I’m back with those slow horses again. It’s like rocking up to a college reunion, with everyone behaving themselves at first, but loosening up after a few drinks. I wonder when the fighting will break out?

September 2013