History: This book was published in 1974. It is the first volume of a three-book series informally known as The Karla Trilogy. These three books are also the 5th, 6th, and 7th novel in the entire series of Smiley novels.
Plot: George Smiley, the old, estranged, overweight, taciturn and sharp-minded protagonist, is recalled from his uneasy retirement when there are signs that one of the top-ranking officers of the British Secret Intelligence Service (referred to throughout as "The Circus") is a Soviet mole. A little more than a year before the events of the first chapter, "Control," the elderly chief of the Circus, believes that one of the five highest-ranking officers in the Circus is a Soviet mole. When he receives an offer from a disgruntled Czech general to reveal the mole's identity, Control privately launches "Operation Testify": he recruits Circus veteran Jim Prideaux to meet the general near Brno, in Czechoslovakia. As soon as he gets to the rendezvous, Prideaux is ambushed, and wounded by two bullets in the shoulder blade.
The first chapter opens with Prideaux taking up a post as a languages master at a small private school for boys after being repatriated to England. He brings along his vintage Alvis roadster, and lives in a caravan on the school grounds.
In London, George Smiley returns to his apartment to find his former protégé, Peter Guillam, waiting for him. Their conversation sketches the aftermath of Testify: Control was disgraced, and died shortly thereafter. Smiley was dismissed shortly after Control left the Circus, having argued that Prideaux's ambush was a sign of treason in the Circus. Control was replaced by Percy Alleline, an ambitious and highly political officer. Alleline was also Control's arch-rival within the Circus.
Control's star was already fading, and Alleline's rising, thanks to a high failure rate of Circus operations and a mysterious new source of top-grade Soviet intelligence, code-named "Source Merlin." Merlin's intelligence was dubbed "Witchcraft," which Percy Alleline had been feeding to his allies in Whitehall and the armed services. The four case officers handling Source Merlin are now the Circus's top rank: Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase — in fact, these four men, plus Smiley, were the five Control suspected of being the mole.
Peter Guillam was demoted to head of "scalp-hunters," a sort of throwback to the rougher, hired-thugs version of intelligence officers the Circus used in its older days. Now, one of his men, Ricki Tarr, has surfaced after having gone absent during an operation eight months earlier. Guillam drives Smiley to a meeting with Tarr and Sir Oliver Lacon, the Permanent Undersecretary to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Civil Service official with oversight authority over the intelligence services. Tarr says that on his last assignment, he had an affair with a Russian woman, Irina, the wife of a Moscow Centre operative, who told Tarr that one of her former lovers claimed to have worked as an assistant to the Soviet cultural attaché in London, Polyakov, who in reality is the case officer for a high-ranking "mole" in the Circus, code-named "Gerald" and recruited by "Karla", a shadowy Russian intelligence director.
What makes the story convincing is that no sooner had Tarr cabled London for further instructions when Irina and her husband were snatched from their hotel and put on the next plane to Moscow.
Lacon asks Smiley to "clean the stables" and find the mole, which can only be done using a secret investigation. Smiley is assisted by Guillam, and by his old friend, former Special Branch Superintendent Mendel.
Smiley gradually pieces together the story by analyzing files, interrogating witnesses and trawling through his own memory and those of other retired Circus personnel. His task is complicated because one of the suspects, Haydon, had had an affair with Smiley's wife Ann during the time period of Testify that had broken up their marriage, and he has to separate out his personal feelings.
Smiley first visits Connie Sachs, the Circus's former head of research, possessed of a phenomenal memory. During the interview, Smiley confirms the veracity of Irina's story. Irina knew that Polyakov's real name is Viktorov. Connie tells Smiley that she knew Viktorov was recruited by Karla as a special agent, but that "he simply disappeared off the face of the earth."
She confirms that there were several indications that Polyakov is a "six cylinder Karla-trained hood," but demonstrated no connection between Viktorov and Polyakov. There were also several suspicious signs that Polyakov was running an English mole, but her requests for further investigation were firmly refused by the Circus hierarchy and led to her forced retirement.
Based on a review of files stolen from the Circus by Guillam, Smiley discovers an interplay between Witchcraft and Polyakov's activities and realizes that Witchcraft and Gerald are part of the same conspiracy.
During a dinner with Peter, Smiley tells what he knows of Karla's history, including the fact that they'd met face-to-face once, after the War. Karla had been caught after setting up an illegal network in the United States, and was being held in Delhi.
Smiley interviewed him there, attempting to persuade him to defect, since he was almost certainly facing execution back home. During the interview, he loaned Karla his cigarette lighter, a gift from his wife, which Karla took away with him. Karla
returned to Moscow, outwitted his superiors, and survived. Smiley predicts that one day, Karla will be defeated because of his fanaticism.
Smiley then backtracks through the history of Operation Testify. Based on interviews with Sam Collins, the duty officer on the night of the ambush, and Jerry Westerby, a sports writer and Circus irregular, Smiley establishes that Prideaux was ambushed by Russian troops, not Czech, who were lying in wait for him.
Finally, Smiley tracks down Jim Prideaux, who gives the details of his capture and interrogation. Based on physical descriptions, Jim identifies two of his interrogators as Karla and Polyakov. The focus of the interrogation was entirely on how far Control had gotten in identifying the mole, and the interrogators were armed with amazingly detailed knowledge of his pre-mission briefing with Control ("They knew the brand of the bloody sherry, man.") After he was repatriated, Jim was given a generous severance payment and told in the strongest terms by Toby Esterhase to forget any suspicions he might have.
Smiley is now ready to go over to the attack: he gets Toby Esterhase alone, convinced that he is not the mole, and explains to Toby the shape of Karla's "very clever knot": that Source Merlin doesn't exist, he is a phantom introduced to the Circus hierarchy by "Gerald," whoever he is, as a means of allowing Alleline to supplant Control, and giving the mole a perfect cover for his activities. The Circus hierarchy believes that Polyakov is Source Merlin's London representative, and thus a perfect conduit for supplying the Witchcraft intelligence. But because Polyakov is a Moscow Centre agent, the Circus needs to pretend that he is running an English mole, by giving him "chickenfeed" - worthless intelligence tricked up to seem valuable.
This way, any indicators that the Russians have a mole inside the Circus are just part of the illusion, and the Circus hierarchy itself acts ruthlessly to suppress them, as witness Connie Sachs, Jerry Westerby, and Jim Prideaux. The problem is, in reality, Witchcraft is the chickenfeed, and one of the Circus top men really is a mole, under whose guidance the Circus has unwittingly been "handing Polyakov the crown jewels", i.e. information of great value to the Russians.
Toby tells Smiley enough about the procedures for meeting Polyakov to lay the trap: Ricki Tarr sends a message from Paris, claiming to have urgent information for Alleline, which Smiley knows will force the real mole to call an emergency meeting with Polyakov. Smiley and Guillam lie in wait at the safe house, where the mole is revealed to be Bill Haydon, whose guilt is established in person and on tape.
Alleline, Bland, and Esterhase, humiliated and defeated, bow to Smiley's suggestion that they negotiate with Karla to exchange Haydon for as many of the Circus's betrayed secret agents behind the Iron Curtain as can be saved — now that Haydon has been exposed, they will otherwise be arrested and executed.
Smiley is invited by Haydon to hear a partial and self-serving explanation of his conduct before his departure for Russia, in which Haydon discusses his reasons for becoming a mole, and also reveals that Operation Testify was a trap from the beginning, lain because both Karla and Haydon saw that Control was getting too close to exposing Haydon. Testify was to make sure that Control would have to leave the Circus and Witchcraft was to make sure that Percy Alleline replaced Control as chief of the Circus. Haydon also confesses, somewhat shamefully, that he knew the precise time of the operation because Prideaux came to him before he left for Czechoslovakia, to warn him. (Haydon and Prideaux were best friends, and possibly
lovers, when they were at university together.)
The deal with Karla is broken when Haydon is found dead on the grounds of the camp where he is being held, his neck broken. His killer is never explicitly named, but a series of verbal clues laid earlier in the novel make clear that his killer is Prideaux, taking revenge for being betrayed.
Smiley is appointed temporary head of the Circus, to contain the disaster. The novel leaves him as he is preparing to tell his wife about Haydon's treachery, since Bill was one of her many lovers.
Prideaux returns to his boys' school, and does his best to resume a normal life.
Review: I listened to this book and had difficulty getting things straight. There are so many sub-plots within sub-plots. When characters interact, he doesn’t just use it to provide the reader with information. The interaction itself is part of building the mood and making the characters more three-dimensional. In addition to understatement, he uses the English trait of nicknaming things, in a very consistent way to avoid what otherwise might seem melodramatic. In the course of elaborately and endlessly deceiving their opponents about their intentions and the kind of person they were, they were just as likely to wind up deceiving their friends and themselves. And meanwhile, the great machinery of the war used them and threw them away with a cold relentlessness.
Opening Line: "Jim Prideaux came to Thursgood School in late May."
Closing Line: "Everyone waited on Smiley's answer, but none came."
Quotes: "A committee is an animal with four back legs."