In this sequel to John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George Smiley and a group of close associates attempt to launch a successful offensive against Karla, the leader of the Soviet Secret Service, in order to redeem the credibility of the British Secret Service. The Circus (the British Secret Service) is reeling from “the fall”—the exposing of a high Circus official as a longtime Soviet mole planted by Karla, head of Moscow Centre (Soviet Secret Service). In an effort to re-establish the Circus' operations and credibility, George Smiley and group of trusted associates begin searching for missions that the mole had unreasonably put a stop to in order to thwart the Circus' efforts and protect Moscow Centre.
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Eventually, Smiley and this team uncover a report by agent Sam Collins, who was in the midst of investigating a Laos-based opium scheme. This scheme, referred to as the “gold seam” inside the Circus, consisted of monthly payments of $25,000 US dollars into the account of an airline company called Indocharter, notorious for its contracted opium deliveries and its main pilot, Tiny Ricardo. Sam Collins reveals that Indocharter was owned and operated by a Hong Kong-based company called China Airsea. Smiley and his group suspect that the monthly payments to the airlines are sanctioned by Moscow Centre in exchange for intelligence, and Smiley dispatches Jerry Westerby, whose nickname is the “honourable schoolboy”, to Hong Kong to gather more information about China Airsea's bank accounts and the primary account holder.
Upon arriving in Hong Kong, Westerby blackmails the banker in charge of China Airsea's accounts and discovers that the paperwork reveals the name of the China Airsea and Indocharter account holder: Hong Kong business tycoon Drake Ko. Under the guise of a tabloid journalist, Westerby establishes contact with Drake Ko, his right-hand man, Mr. Tiu, and Ko's mistress, Lizzie Worthington. Circus investigations in London reveal that Lizzie Worthington previously lived in Laos as the mistress of Tiny Ricardo and was temporarily recruited by Sam Collins to gather intelligence.
Meanwhile, American CIA officers, referred to as “the Cousins”, approach Smiley and his team and inform them that Ricardo had previously approached them with intelligence regarding a Mainland China opium run to he had been hired to execute on behalf of Mr. Tiu, Drake Ko's manager. The Americans chose not to pursue this lead at the time. However, now frustrated with the Circus's seemingly futile efforts, the Americans impose a twelve-week time limit on the Circus operation—if no concrete evidence or arrests take place, the Americans warned, they would take over.
Now running against the clock, the Circus digs deeper into Drake Ko's past. The investigation reveals that Ko had a brother, Nelson, who was supposedly killed in mainland China for his revolutionary activities and Soviet ties. However, the Circus discovers that Nelson Ko is in fact alive and holds a high position in the Mainland Chinese government, rendering him the most probable Soviet mole for which Drake Ko's China Airseas account receives the $25,000 monthly payments. Smiley guesses that the opium run for which Mr. Tiu had contracted Tiny Ricardo was part of a larger plan (which ultimately failed) to help Nelson Ko escape from mainland China to Hong Kong. The Circus instructs Westerby to meet with Lizzie Worthington, Ko's mistress, to see if she has any information about the connection between Tiny Ricardo's final flight and Nelson Ko, but Westerby quickly realizes she does not. However, during the meeting, Westerby begins to develop an attraction to Lizzie.
The Circus then instructs Westerby to fly to Cambodia to meet with Charlie Marshall, a pilot who worked alongside Tiny Ricardo and Lizzie Worthington at Indocharter in Laos. Although initially reluctant to speak to Westerby, Marshall eventually reveals that Mr. Tiu had first approached him to fly the Mainland China opium flight before contracting Tiny Ricardo, and that when Tiny Ricardo abandoned the run midway, Lizzie Worthington offered herself to Drake Ko in exchange for Ricardo's safety. Marshall then gives Westerby Tiny Ricardo's current address in Thailand.
Westerby travels to Thailand to meet with Tiny Ricardo, who reveals the rest of the story: Mr. Tiu had asked Ricardo to deliver the opium to a remote location in mainland China, receive a package in exchange, and deliver this package back to Mr. Tiu. However, instead of completing the job as planned, Ricardo stole the opium, which he then sold to the Americans, and went into hiding. After Lizzie Worthington had made a deal with Drake Ko for Ricardo's safety, he had been transported to the house in Thailand and kept under the supervision of Mr. Tiu. Westerby quickly realizes that the “package” Ricardo was supposed to deliver was none other than Nelson Ko, and he shares this realization with Ricardo. While Ricardo does not react to this information at the time, he quietly plants a bomb in Westerby's car, which Westerby discovers and manages to escape.
As per Circus instructions, Westerby then reports to a U.S. Air Force base and transmits his report of his conversation with Marshall and Ricardo to the Circus. In response, the Circus instructs him to return to London. Back in London, Smiley and the Americans have discovered that Drake Ko and Mr. Tiu are planning another attempt to smuggle Nelson Ko out of the mainland—this time through a fishing boat fleet through the island of Po Toi.
While Smiley and the Americans fly to Hong Kong to prepare for the interception of Drake and Nelson Ko's rendezvous on Po Toi, Westerby quietly disregards the Circus' orders and returns to Hong Kong instead of London. He is overwhelmed by his desire for Lizzie and the notion that Nelson Ko, although an important intelligence asset for the Circus and the Cousins, deserves to be reunited with his brother. He meets with Lizzie at a fashion show and they return to her apartment. He instructs her to call Drake Ko and ask him to meet with her at the apartment. Shortly after, a visitor knocks on Lizzie's door. Westerby, believing that the visitor is either Drake Ko or Mr. Tiu, attacks the visitor as he enters. To Westerby's surprise, the visitor is none other than Smiley and a few colleagues from the CIA, who had wiretapped Lizzie's phones weeks earlier.
Smiley arranges for Westerby to be escorted back to London, but Westerby escapes en route and makes his way back to Lizzie's apartment. He asks Lizzie to run with him and help him save Nelson, saying that while there is not much he can offer her, being a pawn in intelligence operations will offer her nothing. Lizzie agrees, and they arrange for a boat to take them to Po Toi.
On Po Toi, Lizzie recalls her trips to the island with Drake Ko and shows Westerby the spots that Ko had shown a particular interest in; Westerby surmises that this is where Ko will meet the fishing boat that is smuggling his brother Nelson from mainland China. He promises to meet Lizzie at a Hong Kong restaurant the following night, and Lizzie then returns to Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Westerby waits on the island for nightfall and Nelson Ko's arrival.
As the time for the rendezvous approaches, Westerby meets Drake Ko and Mr. Tiu on the beach. After struggling with Mr. Tiu, Westerby turns to Drake Ko and informs him that the British and the Americans are planning to intercept Nelson's journey. In exchange for helping Nelson successfully escape, Westerby asks for Lizzie's freedom. Drake Ko contemplates the offer, but Nelson's boat arrives and Drake rushes to meet him, forgetting Westerby's warning about the interception. As soon as Nelson emerges from the boat and embraces Drake, American helicopters swoop in and seize Nelson, shoot Westerby, who is now considered a traitor and a liability, and fly away.
Nelson is imprisoned and interrogated in the U.S., much to the dismay of Circus veterans who were hoping (and who were promised) to have access to Nelson and the opportunity to interrogate him themselves. Now that Circus credibility has been re-established with the Americans, Smiley is once again forced into retirement and is replaced as Chief by a more pro-American Foreign Officer named Saul Enderby. Agent Sam Collins is now the new Chief's right-hand man and Director of Operations. The other Circus veterans whom Smiley had gathered to plan and execute the operation are also forced into retirement, leaving things much as they were at the beginning of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Best part of story, including ending:
Like a lot of John le Carre novels, especially the Karla trilogy, this novel explored the notions of the individual, loyalty, and humanity. The juxtaposition of George Smiley, representing the old, fast-fading notion of national loyalty, and Jerry Westerby, representing an individual's search for humanity in an increasingly cynical and violent world, was very interesting.
Best scene in story:
The scene when Westerby visits Tiny Ricardo in Thailand is my favorite because not only is one of the main mysteries of the novel solved, but the reader can see Westerby's own doubts about the value and importance of the intelligence work he is performing at the cost of others' and his own humanity. These doubts then go on to motivate Westerby's actions and decisions in the last section of the novel.
Opinion about the main character:
I liked that no matter how many sorrows and disappointments Westerby has experienced, he is not completely pessimistic about human relationships or incapable of feeling empathy for others.