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Smiley's People

Smiley's People
First edition
Author John le Carré
Cover artist Stephen Cornwell
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series The Quest for Karla
Genre Spy novel
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Random House (USA)
Publication date
November 1979
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 384 pp (hardback edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-340-24704-5 (UK hardback edition) & ISBN 0-394-50843-2 (US hardback edition)
OCLC 6102346
Preceded by The Honourable Schoolboy
Followed by The Little Drummer Girl

Smiley's People is a Soviet spymaster Karla.


  • Plot 1
  • Characters 2
  • Adaptations 3
    • Television 3.1
    • Radio 3.2
    • Possible cinema version 3.3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


Maria Andreyevna Ostrakova, a Soviet émigrée in Paris, is told by a Soviet agent calling himself "Kursky" that her daughter Alexandra, who 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 uses blundering amateur agents instead of trained intelligence officers.

Vladimir contacts 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 bury 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 he surmises that Kirov is probably the other man in the photograph. Meanwhile, Soviet agents bungle an attempt to kill Maria.

Smiley consults the 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 deeply loved but who ultimately turned against him and was sent to the Gulag on Karla's orders. 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, a small town near Hamburg, 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 official funds to a Swiss bank account and misappropriating other resources using a commercial attache 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, 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.

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 co-operating 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.

Although it is unnecessary, 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 new Camel. As he passes near Smiley he drops the gold cigarette lighter, a gift to George from Ann, that he purloined from Smiley years earlier in an Indian prison. 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 ruthless techniques of Karla himself robs Smiley of any apparent sense of triumph in the book's closing sentences.


  • 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
  • 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 John Hopkins[1] 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 Simon Russell Beale as Smiley. Smiley's People was broadcast as three, one-hour episodes, from Thursday 20th October to Sunday 24th October 2011. The producer was Patrick Rayner.[2]

Possible cinema version

Following the success of the 2011 Academy Awards he told the press that Smiley's People would be the most likely sequel. If so, it will mean that the cinema series will skip The Honourable Schoolboy, just as the BBC did in its serialisation of the "Karla Trilogy" in the early 1980s.


  1. ^ Angelini, Sergio. "BFI Screenonline: Smiley's People (1982)".  
  2. ^ "The Complete Smiley".  

External links

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