A sense of honour

John Le Carre's The honourable schoolboy marks a bit of a milestone in Bookhound's reading life. It's my first ever e-novel. As far as the e-experience goes, I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected.

Favourite things - almost as easy to use as a book, liked the idea that it counted down time left to read on a chapter, and the percentage you were through it, so it was easy to slot in reading times through the day without over-running, fairly light to handle, good clear type, and nice that you could adjust font and size to suit you.

Downside - Waiting for the wretched thing to turn on. Yes, I know it was only a couple of minutes, but think of the number of pages that I could get through in that time(!). Flicking back to check on a chunk that you needed to re-read seemed trickier than flipping through a book. I didn't find it as easy to hold as a book (although that did improve as time went on), and sometimes light on the screen was annoying (I know that in the latest Kindles this is much improved).

Most favourite thing though was reading with the lights out - took me back to reading as a child, and finishing that must-read-can't-put-it-down volume under the blankets by torchlight.

And so on to The honourable schoolboy. The second in Le Carre's Quest for Karla trilogy, Honourable Schoolboy finds George Smiley tracking Karla's work to China where the Soviets are running an agent. Desperate to get hold of the agent and discover more about what makes the Russian spymaster Karla tick, Smiley sends Jerry Westerby, newshound and small-time spy, out to Hong Kong, where a mysterious businessman, Drake Ko, who's having an affair with a British con-girl, seems to have a brother who's resurrected himself. Westerby goes out there all gung-ho and thinking of England, but when a man is found brutally murdered after a meeting with Westerby, Jerry is forced to re-examine his concept of what is right and wrong in an increasingly dirty Cold War. Moving from a Hong Kong that is one of the last vestiges of Empire, to a South-East Asia that is going up in flames as the Americans withdraw from Vietnam, and the war spills over into Cambodia and Laos, this is part Cold War spy story, and part a Frederick Forsyth-type adventure tale.

Probably because of the BBC's masterful adaptations of the two novels that sandwich Honourable Schoolboy - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's people, Honourable Schoolboy tends to be the forgotten spy story. This is a real shame. It made an impact at the time, winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and it's a cracking good read.

In fact it was a surprisingly appropriate choice to be my first e-book. The books that kept me reading under the covers as a small child were gung-ho adventure stories, and Honourable Schoolboy laments their death. Jerry Westerby could have come straight out of a tale written by Buchan or Kipling. He is, as the title suggests, an honourable man, but with the ideals of a reader of Boy's Own adventure stories. He believes that he can work for the Secret Service, but "play a straight bat" - a job in which no-one (except the bad guys) get hurt, maidens can be rescued, and good will eventually triumph. In these aspirations he is actually very like the top man in MI6, George Smiley, who wants to believe the same thing, but knows that in reality it doesn't work. MI6 may eventually get their man, but it will not be in the way that Westerby would hope. Westerby will feel betrayed, but ultimately it's less a betrayal, more the revealing of a truth that Boy's Own stories live in a fictional world, and don't bear any resemblance to the dirty wars that were going on in South East Asia, or between the Soviet Union and the West; or for that matter still exist today.

The ending may be weak, if inevitable, in order for Le Carre to get his point across; but this is story-telling at its best - compulsive, disconcerting, and beautifully written. Don't skip Honourable Schoolboy in order to get on to the better known Smiley's people, it's well worth a read.


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