The first book about Smiley was first and foremost an engaging murder mystery. The murder case does, however, twist in and out of the world of the Circus, the mysterious espionage bureau Smiley worked for. As a spy novel, it is good, even if Smiley was hardly an action hero. As a murder mystery, it was superb. It is a great read!
So, too, is the second book about Smiley. Though there is no reference to the Circus in it and the pace is far slower, it is still a great mystery and fun to read.
It is the third book that is the first real spy novel from the author and what a novel it is! It had it all: sex, violence, suspense, betrayal, and loyalty. You name it; it is in there in a fantastic format. The case revolves around an East German named Mundt, a spy first introduced in Call For The Dead, who is active again and who is involved in destroying the undercover network the British had in East Germany. Smiley's involvement is rather limited although he is referred to often. What is most important is that Smiley has returned from retirement to become the number two man at the Circus. This book was, of course, turned into a superb movie starring Richard Burton. The movie was far grittier than the book but it captured that agony of an agent who wants out and a world that won't let him. It also took the viewing public to another arena from the flashing, sexy world of espionage that James Bond was displaying.
It is hard to imagine a spy novel with more of a dark nature than The Spy Who Came In From The Cold but John LeCarre does it with this next book in the series. Again, George Smiley plays a small but crucial role in the affair. The book revolves around inter-departmental rivalry. The ruthlessness of Smiley comes across at the same time as his disgust for the antics of both the competing group and his own boss, Control. Smiley's intelligence shines through, as does his methodical planning and actions. This book was made into a very slow, dry and basically unpleasant movie starring Christopher Jones.
Smiley comes into his own as the main character in the fifth book, possibly the best spy novel I have ever read. After many years of operation, thing have changed drastically at the Circus. Control has died of a heart attack. George Smiley has been forcibly retired. Many of the loyal old guard have been sacked or demoted and the agency is under new management. This was seen as a normal 'changing of the guard' until word reached the Minister that there was something unpleasant going on, something that screamed of the presence of a mole. If a mole truly resided at the Circus, everything that organization did was in jeopardy and everything learned was suspect. George Smiley is once more called from the retirement he so desperately craved to lead a small team of investigators to ferret out the mole and restore order to the Circus. This means facing down a man who had an affair with Smiley's wife and digging deeply into the mind of Karla, the ultimate Soviet spy master. This is truly a fantastic novel. The characters are rich and understandable. Some are likeable and others despised but they all are real. The plight of Smiley and the manner in which he ever-so-carefully digs for the truth is remarkable reading. This book was turned into a tremendous mini-series starring Alec Guinness playing Smiley, an interesting fact in that the renowned actor looks nothing remotely like the character in the book and yet the acting is so real, the behavior so dead-on, that as I re-read the book, I saw him as Smiley. But let there be no mistake that the true genius behind this incredible spy and mystery novel is not the performance of a great actor, awesome though it was. It is the greatness of the author.
In the sixth book, with the capture of the mole completed, Smiley is placed in charge of the Circus in a caretaker role. It is while serving as such that he discovers a chance to go after the orchestrator of the affair, Karla. Unfortunately for Smiley's group, others in the intelligence field thought they should be running the show. and Smiley finds himself struggling to keep control. This novel shows the intelligence and the tenacity of the main character.
Smiley's People is the last of the trilogy concerning the conflict between Smiley and the Soviet master, Karla, and in it all of the talents of Smiley and his select group of experts would be tasked far more than ever when the chance comes to not only stop Karla but to actually capture him. George Smiley has once again retired from the Circus and, once again, he is pulled back to the fold with an appeal from the Minister's chief of staff. This adventure has Smiley on the offensive, planning moves to capture pieces and not just operate in a mostly defensive posture. His brilliance is matched by his eagerness. Smiley was not just doing what was right in this book; he was doing what he desired.
In the eighth book, and for almost two decades the final one, in the Smiley saga, the torch has been passed to the younger generation. George Smiley has retired for good. His awesome team has each moved on in life or beyond. New people, all younger, rule the Circus. The spymaster emeritus Smiley is invited to talk with a graduating class of new agents. What results is a recount of 40 years of espionage. Told in the form of reminiscing, these tales show the trials, and wisdom, of Britain's senior agent. While the story related in the book is interesting, the most fascinating part is the discourse that Smiley has with the young men and women. His candor over his successes and failures, as well as his attitude towards the next generation, is a delight to read.
After, as said, a long while (17 years), a return to the Circus and to George Smiley, albeit indirectly through the eyes of one of his staunchest allies, Peter Guillam. In the book several decades have elapsed since the debacle that was the death of Alec Leamas in TSWCIFTC. People who were barely alive at the time are muck-raking and Guillam is the pawn. It puts a new spin on what happened back then but is it new facts come to light or people's faulty memories or too many people with their own never-noble aspirations.
One awesome series.