History: This book was published in 1979.
Plot: Maria Andreyevna Ostrakova, a Soviet émigrée in Paris, defected to the West years ago having left behind a daughter named Alexandra. Ostrakova is persuaded by a Soviet agent (Kursky, also known as Oleg Kirov) that her daughter may be permitted to emigrate and join her in Paris. Ostrakova eagerly applies for French citizenship for her daughter, but time passes with no sign of Alexandra and no further contact with "Kirov." Ostrakova realises that she and her real-life story have been used, probably by the KGB, for some unknown reason. She therefore contacts General Vladimir, a former World War II Soviet General who was secretly an agent for the British due to his patriotism for his native Estonia. After his eventual defection, "the General" became the leader of a pro-Estonian independence group with dubious usefulness to Western intelligence agencies but nonetheless a hero among the Russian émigré community living in the West.
Vladimir immediately realizes that Ostrakova was unwittingly used to provided a "legend", i.e. a false identity, for an unknown young woman through a scheme personally directed by KGB master spy Karla. He also recognises that the operation is wholly unofficial, because Karla uses untrained and blundering Soviet diplomatic personnel rather than trained KGB intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover.
Vladimir attempts to contact "Hector" (Toby Esterhase), his old handler in the British Secret Service, but is rebuffed as Esterhase is now retired from the Circus (the London headquarters of British Intelligence). He nevertheless sends his agent and confidant Otto Leipzig to interview Ostrakova in Paris, and sends another friend's son, Villem, to Hamburg to collect vital proofs from Leipzig. He then contacts British Intelligence again. This time he insists on speaking to his former senior case officer "Max" (George Smiley), not realising that Smiley himself is retired. The Circus is sceptical and uncooperative.
Meanwhile, Vladimir's activities have been betrayed by Karla's network of informers within the Russian émigré community. Vladimir is professionally assassinated while on his way to meet with a young and inexperienced handler from the Circus, evidently by a Moscow agent.
New Circus head Saul Enderby and Civil Service undersecretary Oliver Lacon are certain that the General was merely an obscure ex-agent seeking attention, and want to quickly bury the matter and protect themselves and the Circus from any scandal. They call George Smiley back from his forced retirement to evaluate the situation in the hopes that he will quickly clean up the incident and bury any links to the Circus. Unlike those currently in authority at the Circus, Smiley takes seriously Vladimir's claims about valuable information and begins to investigate rather than sweeping the issue under the rug. Close to the spot where Vladimir was murdered, he discovers the negative of a compromising photograph of Leipzig and another man, which Vladimir had hidden just before his death. He recalls that Leipzig had often used Kirov, a venal amateur agent who was susceptible to blackmail, as a source of information, and surmises that Kirov is probably the other man in the photograph.
Soviet agents meanwhile bungle an attempt to kill Ostrakova. Smiley fortuitously recovers a letter from Ostrakova to the General from a postman outside Vladimir's run-down flat. He then consults with former Circus researcher Connie Sachs, obtaining some background information on Kirov and also on Karla. In particular, Connie recalls old rumours that Karla had a daughter by a mistress whom Karla had deeply loved but ultimately turned against him and was sent to the Gulag on Karla's orders. The daughter, Tatiana, grew up with a disappeared mother and a father she never knew; she became mentally unstable (demonstrated by "acting out" through repeated petty crime and rampant promiscuity) 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 discarded by the General was taken. Kretzschmar gives him directions to find Leipzig, on a boat in a gypsy encampment; but Soviet agents have found Leipzig first, torturing and killing him. Smiley's postmortem search of Leipzig's boat uncovers what Karla's agents did not: the torn half of a postcard hidden underwater in an old shoe. His discovery is witnessed by several people, and his rental car is severely damaged by the gypsies. Smiley rushes to finish his work in Hamburg before the German authorities and Soviet thugs close in on him. Here Smiley appears as the spy of old (his first assignment was in Germany before the war according to Call for the Dead) and a master of tradecraft.
He takes the half of the postcard to Kretzschmar, who matches it to the other half and gives Smiley a tape recording made at the time the photograph of Leipzig and Kirov was taken, and the photocopy of Ostrakova's first letter which Vladimir had sent to Leipzig. Smiley reads the letter and flies to Paris, fearing for Ostrakova's life. With help from his old friend and former lieutenant Peter Guillam, now serving out his days in the British Embassy in Paris, Smiley gets Ostrakova to a safe place. He also learns that Kirov has been summoned back to Moscow, and has probably been killed for his indiscretions.
Smiley then returns to London where he meets in secret with Enderby. The transcribed tape of Kirov's confession to Leipzig shows that Karla is secretly diverting official funds (US $10,000 every month) and misappropriating resources through the Soviet embassy in Berne, Switzerland, using a commercial attache named Grigoriev. This money and resources are all going to the care of Karla's daughter who, using the faked citizenship of Ostrakova's daughter, has been committed to a high-end Swiss psychiatric facility. Smiley explains that if British Intelligence can obtain proof of this relationship, they may have the information necessary to blackmail (or "burn") Smiley's nemesis Karla and force him to defect or face disgrace and possibly execution. Unexpectedly, Smiley obtains approval, and secret and deniable funding, from Enderby to mount an operation to secure the evidence from Grigoriev and close the trap on Karla.
While Smiley does research at the Circus, Toby Esterhase, the former head of the Circus's "lamplighters" (covert agent operations) section, sets up a team in Berne to keep Grigoriev under surveillance. Smiley then visits his estranged wife, Ann, and makes a point of cutting all relations with her, deliberately shedding his illusions (Karla previously described Ann as 'the last illusion of an illusionless man') as he prepares to face down his greatest foe. Smiley recognises how ruthless he must become if he is to be Karla's nemesis.
On arriving in Berne, 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 formidable wife, Grigorieva, he makes an informal trip into Berne by himself one Sunday and is bundled into a car by Esterhase and his helpers. He is then subjected to Smiley's expert interrogation, and given the choice of cooperating and defecting, or being returned to the Soviet Union in disgrace with the prospect of a lifetime facing Karla's and Grigorieva's wrath. Grigoriev quickly confesses all he knows of the arrangements regarding Alexandra's care and the details of the visits he makes to her.
Although it is unnecessary, Smiley visits Alexandra, who is being treated for mental disorder in an institution run by an order of nuns. Among her "symptoms" are her insistence that she is actually called Tatiana, and is the daughter of a powerful man who can make people disappear but does not actually exist.
Smiley then writes a letter to Karla, which Grigoriev passes on instead of his usual weekly report on "Alexandra's" condition and the minutiae of her treatment. The contents of the letter are unknown but Karla is evidently faced with a choice between defection, or his own and his daughter's destruction.
In a final scene reminiscent of the opening scene of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Karla, posing as a labourer, defects using a walk-bridge at the Berlin Wall. Unlike Karl Riemeck in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Karla does not panic during the crossing and makes it safely to the Circus's waiting car. Before crossing over into the waiting arms of western agents, Karla drops the cigarette lighter he had purloined from Smiley years ago, a gift to George from his unfaithful wife Ann. Given the opportunity, Smiley fails to pick up the lighter—another sign that he has become that which he resisted for so long.
Karla is finally defeated, but the similarity of Smiley's methods to the cold and ruthless techniques of Karla himself robs Smiley of any apparent sense of triumph in the book's closing sentences.
Review: Le Carré strips away the romantic glamor of a "spy novel" and deals with the heart of espionage, people. Much of the book is consumed by talking, storytelling. There are long passages, chapters long, where one character reveals or reviews their knowledge for Smiley's benefit. He works over his own information, revisiting old case files, and interviews other people extensively. He talks to former associates and colleagues, some of whom he had sworn never to see again. In doing so, he pieces together the story which will lead to the final showdown with Karla, a shadowy figure at best who seems to have outlasted Smiley in the spy business.
At times the dialogue feels tedious, as some characters attempt to hide or restrict information. Much of the story you must figure out for yourself.
Opening Line: "Two semminly unconnected events heralded the summons of Mr. George Smiley from his dubious retirement."
Closing Line: "Did I?" said Smiley. "Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did."
Quotes: "Blackmail is more effective than bribery."