Smiley's People

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Smiley's People
JohnLeCarre SmileysPeople.jpg
First edition
AuthorJohn le Carré
Cover artistStephen Cornwell
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesGeorge Smiley/The Quest for Karla
GenreSpy novel
PublisherHodder & Stoughton (UK)
Random House (USA)
Publication date
November 1979
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages384 pp (hardback edition)
ISBN0-340-24704-5 (UK hardback edition) & ISBN 0-394-50843-2 (US hardback edition)
Preceded byThe Honourable Schoolboy 
Followed byThe Little Drummer Girl 

Smiley's People is a spy novel by John le Carré, published in 1979. Featuring British master-spy George Smiley, it is the third and final novel of the "Karla Trilogy", following Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy. George Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate the death of one of his old agents: a former Soviet general, the head of an Estonian émigré organisation based in London. Smiley learns the general had discovered information that will lead to a final confrontation with Smiley's nemesis, the Soviet spymaster Karla.

The character General Vladimir was partly modelled on Colonel Alfons Rebane, an Estonian émigré who led the Estonian portion of SIS's Operation Jungle in the 1950s.[1] David Cornwell (John le Carré) worked as an intelligence officer for both MI5 and the SIS (MI6).


Maria Andreyevna Ostrakova, a Soviet émigrée in Paris, is told by a Soviet agent calling himself "Kursky" that her daughter Alexandra, whom she was forced to leave behind, may be permitted to join her for "humanitarian reasons". Maria eagerly applies for French citizenship for her daughter, but time passes with no sign of Alexandra and no further contact with "Kursky". Realising she has been duped, Maria writes to General Vladimir, a former Soviet general and British agent, for help. Vladimir immediately realises that Maria was unwittingly used to provide a "legend", or false identity, for an unknown young woman, a ploy which KGB spymaster Karla has fruitlessly tried before. Vladimir also recognises that the operation is wholly unofficial, because Karla used a blundering amateur agent instead of trained intelligence officers.

Vladimir contacts Toby Esterhase, his old handler and "postman" in the Circus, but Esterhase has left the service and refuses to be involved in Vladimir's plans. Nevertheless, Vladimir sends a confidant, Otto Leipzig, to interview Maria in Paris. From a photograph, Maria immediately identifies "Kursky". Vladimir then sends the son of an old friend to Hamburg to collect vital proof from Leipzig. He contacts the Circus again, invoking Moscow Rules and insisting on speaking to his former "vicar" or senior case officer, George Smiley, not realising that Smiley is also retired. The Circus personnel, unfamiliar with Vladimir, are skeptical and uncooperative. Meanwhile, Vladimir's activities are betrayed to Karla, probably by jealous members of Vladimir's émigré organisation. Vladimir is assassinated on Hampstead Heath, evidently by Moscow Centre agents, while on his way to meet an inexperienced handler from the Circus.

New Circus head Saul Enderby and Civil Service undersecretary Oliver Lacon believe that Vladimir was merely an obscure ex-agent seeking attention, and want to bury the matter quickly to protect the Circus from any scandal. They recall Smiley from his forced retirement in the hope that he will erase any links to the Circus. Unlike Enderby and Lacon, Smiley takes Vladimir's claims seriously and begins to investigate. He manages to recover a second letter sent to Vladimir by Maria, who is now being shadowed and fears for her life. Near the site where Vladimir was killed, he discovers Vladimir's half-empty packet of Gauloises cigarettes, containing the negative of a compromising photograph of Leipzig and another man with prostitutes. Smiley recalls that Leipzig had often blackmailed a venal Soviet agent named Oleg Kirov to obtain information, and surmises that Kirov is probably the other man in the photograph. Meanwhile, Soviet agents bungle an attempt to kill Maria.

Smiley consults dying former Circus researcher Connie Sachs, who remembers some background information on Kirov, also known by the cover name "Kursky". Following Vladimir's logic that Karla was acting outside the dedicated system he himself devised, Connie also recounts rumours that Karla had a daughter by a mistress whom he had later sent to the Gulag when she turned against him. The daughter, Tatiana, who grew up without a mother and with a father she never knew, became mentally unstable and was subsequently confined to a mental institution.

Smiley flies to Hamburg, where he hopes to learn the rest of the story. He tracks down Claus Kretzschmar, an old associate of Leipzig and owner of the seedy night club where the photograph was taken. Kretzschmar gives him directions to Leipzig's temporary address on a boat in a gypsy encampment on the Baltic Sea near Lübeck, but two of Karla's agents have already tortured and killed Leipzig. Smiley's search of Leipzig's boat uncovers what Karla's agents did not; the torn half of a postcard hidden underwater in an old gym-shoe on a fishing-line. His discovery is witnessed by several people, and his rental car is damaged by two boys. Smiley rushes to finish his work in Lübeck before German police and Soviet agents close in on him. Here, Smiley appears as the spy of old and a master of tradecraft.

He takes the half of the postcard to Kretzschmar, who matches it to the other half and in exchange gives Smiley a tape recording made at the time the photograph of Leipzig and Kirov was taken, and a photocopy of Maria's first letter to Vladimir. Smiley lays a false trail in the direction of London, and then hastens by train and ferry to Copenhagen, from where he flies to Paris, fearing for Maria's life. With help from his old friend and former lieutenant Peter Guillam, who is serving out his days in the British embassy in Paris, Smiley gets Maria to safety. He also learns that Kirov has been summoned back to Moscow, and has probably been killed for his indiscretions.

Smiley returns to London and meets in secret with Enderby. The transcribed tape of Kirov's confession to Leipzig shows that Karla is secretly diverting funds to a Swiss bank account and misappropriating other resources using a commercial attaché of the Soviet embassy in Bern, named Grigoriev. The money is going to the care of Karla's daughter, who has been committed to an expensive Swiss psychiatric sanatorium under the faked citizenship papers of Maria's daughter. Smiley explains that if the Circus can obtain proof of this activity, they may have the information necessary to blackmail Karla and force him to either defect or be exposed. Unexpectedly, Enderby gives Smiley approval, and secret and deniable funding, to mount an operation to secure the evidence from Grigoriev and close the trap on Karla.

While Smiley does research at the Circus, Esterhase sets up a covert team in Bern to keep Grigoriev under observation. Smiley then visits his estranged wife, Ann, and makes a point of cutting all relations with her as he prepares to face down his greatest foe. Smiley recognises how ruthless he must become if he is to be Karla's nemesis.

In Bern, Smiley learns that, like Kirov, Grigoriev is untrained in spycraft and hopeless at concealment. Esterhase's team soon gains ample evidence of his unofficial handling of funds for Karla and his affair with one of his secretaries. Although Grigoriev is normally accompanied everywhere by his wife, he makes an informal trip by himself to Bern, where Esterhase and his helpers take the opportunity to bundle him into a car. He is then subjected to Smiley's expert interrogation and given the choice of cooperating or being thrown to the mercy of Swiss authorities and, later, Karla. Grigoriev quickly confesses all he knows of the arrangements regarding "Alexandra's" care and the details of the visits he makes to her.

Smiley visits "Alexandra", who is being treated in an institution run by an order of nuns. Among her "symptoms" is her insistence that she is actually called Tatiana and is the daughter of a powerful man who can make people disappear but who does not actually exist. Smiley writes a letter to Karla, which Grigoriev passes on instead of his usual weekly report on "Alexandra"'s treatment. The letter details Karla's illegal activities and offers him the stark choice between defection to the West and protection for Tatiana, or his destruction at the hands of his rivals in Moscow Centre.

In a final scene, Karla, posing as a labourer, defects using a bridge connecting East and West Berlin. Before crossing over into the waiting arms of Western agents, Karla stops and lights a cigarette. As he passes near Smiley he drops a gold cigarette lighter, a gift to George from Ann, that he purloined from Smiley years earlier in an Indian prison. Smiley does not pick up the lighter.


  • Maria Andreyevna Ostrakova – a Russian émigrée in Paris, mother of a girl, Alexandra Glikman, whom she left with the girl's father when she left the Soviet Union
  • Oleg Kirov alias Oleg Kursky – an agent for Karla, deputed to find a suitable legend for Karla's daughter
  • General Vladimir – Estonian émigré, former Soviet general, spied for the British for three years, since defected and later retired; real name, Voldemar
  • Otto Leipzig – "The Magician," Estonian former dock-worker, freelance intelligence agent and occasional fraudster, who works with Vladimir to take down Kirov and Karla
  • George Smiley – retired, former Acting Chief of British intelligence service "the Circus".
  • Peter Guillam – Smiley's friend and former lieutenant, now head of the British Intelligence section in the Paris embassy
  • Connie Sachs – retired former analyst and head of Moscow sphere of British intelligence; lives terminally ill in her Oxford "dacha"
  • Hilary - Former Circus secretary and Connie Sachs' lover; suffered mental breakdown during Smiley's tenure as Chief
  • Sir Oliver Lacon – Whitehall's Head Prefect to the intelligence service, aka Cabinet Office factotum
  • Nigel Mostyn – young intelligence officer who took Vladimir's calls to the Circus
  • Lauder Strickland - Circus fixer and seemingly Head of Personnel; organises the official cover-up of Vladimir's death.
  • Karla – Chief of the Thirteenth Directorate within Soviet Intelligence. The Directorate is also known as the Karla Directorate.
  • Sir Saul Enderby – Chief of The Circus.
  • Sam Collins - Former Circus "hard man" and Southeast Asian hand; current Head of Operations and Enderby's underling
  • William (Villem) Craven – son of a deceased friend of Vladimir, performs a courier job for Vladimir
  • Mikhel – Vladimir's émigré friend and former aide-de-camp at the Free Baltic library in Bloomsbury
  • Elvira – Mikhel's wife, probably Vladimir's lover
  • Toby Esterhase – formerly head of the Circus's "Lamplighter" section, now a dubious art gallery owner. He resumes his former activities to organise the trapping of Grigoriev
  • Claus Kretzschmar – Otto Leipzig's old associate, owner of a seedy night club in Hamburg where Kirov is blackmailed
  • Grigoriev – Soviet bureaucrat in Bern who is drawn against his will into first, Karla's services, then Smiley's
  • Krassky – Moscow courier who handles correspondence between Grigoriev and Karla
  • Tatiana – Karla's deranged daughter, usually referred to by her assumed identity, "Alexandra"
  • Mother Felicity – mother superior of the facility in Thun where Alexandra/Tatiana is kept



US DVD cover for the 1982 BBC series of Smiley's People.

Smiley's People was dramatized as a six-part miniseries for television for the BBC in 1982 as a sequel to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979), again starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley. The screenplay was written by John le Carré and John Hopkins[2] and was directed by Simon Langton. Two versions of this series exist: 1) the six-part UK version, which expands upon several important aspects of Smiley's objectives and Enderby's endorsement of these, and 2) the six-part PBS version in which much of the "back story" had been excised, for time.


In 2009–2011, BBC Radio 4 also broadcast new dramatisations, by Shaun McKenna, of the eight George Smiley novels by John le Carré, featuring Simon Russell Beale as Smiley. Smiley's People was broadcast as three, one-hour episodes, from Thursday 20 October to Sunday 24 October 2011. The producer was Patrick Rayner.[3]

Possible cinema version[edit]

Following the success of the 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film, Gary Oldman, who plays George Smiley in the film, said "I think they're whispering now that they might do Smiley's People." The cinema series would skip The Honourable Schoolboy, just as the BBC did in its serialisation of the "Karla Trilogy" in the early 1980s.[4] The film was in development by Working Title in 2017.[5]


  1. ^ Lucas, Edward (2012). Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today. USA: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 277.
  2. ^ Angelini, Sergio. "BFI Screenonline: Smiley's People (1982)". Screenonline. Retrieved 29 January 2013.
  3. ^ "The Complete Smiley". BBC Radio 4. 20 October 2011. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
  4. ^ Child, Ben (29 November 2011). "Smiley's People: Gary Oldman spies a thrilling return in Le Carré sequel". the Guardian. Retrieved 3 December 2018.
  5. ^ "After his Churchill challenge, Oldman eyes up Smiley again". 22 December 2017. Retrieved 3 December 2018.

External links[edit]