BOOK (1977)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 April, 2009, 12:00am

The Honourable Schoolboy

by John Le Carre


The Honourable Schoolboy, set in edgy cold war 1970s Hong Kong and assorted Southeast Asian locales, has endured the decades well. Telegrams and bat-wing junks may have gone the way of the Lao monarchy, but cold-blooded treachery, revenge and greed will always be with us.

The Honourable Schoolboy is actually the second novel of Le Carr?'s epic Karla Trilogy. Preceded by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and followed by Smiley's People, it can nevertheless be enjoyed as a stand-alone read.

Parts of the spy-thriller epic were penned at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC), albeit in the days when the club occupied its Sutherland House premises, and was home to many more secret agents than it is today. The ex-MI6 Le Carr? felt right at home.

The action starts 'in the dusty little corners where London's secret servants drink together', but by page three we're already at the FCC, from whence the plot meanders its way around Hong Kong and Southeast Asia like a furious but uncertain typhoon, taking in somnolent capitals Vientiane and Phnom Penn, and Cambodia's second city of Battambang, the Isaan region of Thailand, and 'Red China', before returning to Hong Kong, where Po Toi Island provides the venue for the big showdown.

The Honourable Schoolboy is no casual page-turner: it's densely over-plotted, crammed with keenly observed details of another age, and it requires some grasp of the dynamics of East Asia's cold war experience.

At the heart of the book is the marvellously realised 'schoolboy' of the title, the Honourable Jerry Westerby, scion of scumbag press baron Lord Westerby. The young man is a hack of no great distinction and a struggling novelist. But he's also an occasional MI6 agent, and when he's called into action from listless exile in Italy, he abandons his work-in-progress and heads east.

The Honourable Schoolboy packs a lot in: the cold war as viewed from across the Thames and the Mekong and the Lo Wu crossing, competition with the CIA (Le Carr? can't hide his disdain for 'the cousins'), an assortment of hacks, (all westerners, of course), Macau, perilous love triangles, seismic geopolitical changes, and the 'China white' trade - which the British Le Carr? is none too judgmental about, like many ink-stained, bookish descendants of Britain's drug-peddling imperialists on the South China coast.

Read the Karla Trilogy to experience Le Carr? at the peak of his powers, or just The Honourable Schoolboy if you like your spy thrillers retro in flavour, close to home, and of a time when, if you wanted to go to the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Aeroflot was the only way in.