Smiley's People is the final novel in the Karla trilogy, and the sixth book I've read by John LeCarre. The first novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was excellent; the second, The Honourable Schoolboy, I thought was a pretty tough slog, though it's possible that I was reading it at a bad time. I think Smiley's People is the best of the trilogy, and the best of the other five I've read. I've always been fascinated by Smiley, the academic and accomplished spy master. He couldn't be more bland: he's not a flashy Bond character at all. He's a person who dresses like an academic, who often looks as though he might be dozing off during important meetings, who often says very little, and who appears to have very few pleasures in his life. If you were to write a summary of his character and ask people whether they'd be interested, my hunch is that they would not.
And yet, and yet . . . it is fascinating watching how all of his quirky behaviors turn out to be part of a carefully-planned, overarching strategy intended to make people think a certain way or say certain things. I think this is part of the brilliance of Le Carre novels: he has built a character based on slight movements and minimal communication, and shown how that character can succeed--and perhaps even more, that only that kind of person could succeed. There are no theatrics, no fireworks when George Smiley talks. We never quite know where it will all lead, or more importantly, how Smiley will get to his goal. Like the people he talks to, we are often in the dark about what he is really asking, what he is really scrutinizing. He's the anti-hero, or maybe better, he's the introverted hero.
One of Smiley's great qualities is his ability to stay calm and logical in the face of challenging, dangerous situations. But Smiley is not perfect: one of his apparent weaknesses is that there are moments when he hesitates to make big decisions. Part of the joy I experience reading Le Carre's novels is seeing an extremely intelligent main character accomplish brilliant things while also being clearly flawed.