Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré

So, everyone's seen the film and everyone's raving about it. That includes me; it's brilliant. However, when I decided to see the film, I was convinced that I'd already read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when I was about 13.

After about ten minutes of watching the film in total confusion, it became abundantly clear that I had not in fact read Tinker Tailor at all, however. I then remembered that what I'd read (and loved) was actually A Perfect Spy. D'oh. Consequently I decided to read Tinker Tailor. Also, I felt I owed it to my dad, a big fan of George Smiley and all things spyish (so much so that when I was little, he told me that he used to be a spy himself, and was so convincing that I believed him).

For the first 100 pages, even though I'd seen the film, I had very little idea what the hell was going on. There are numerous characters, many of them with more than one name, and very little indication of what their jobs might be and whether they were important. Moreover, the book is crammed with secret service jargon which is never explained. Call me stupid, but I was baffled.

However... perhaps perversely, this was actually one of the things I liked about it. The jargon and the complete lack of any practical explanation of Who's Who In Spying brings with it a feeling of real immersion in the murky, oddly down-at-heel world of George Smiley, the recently sacked intelligence officer re-recruited to dig out a mole from 'the Circus', as MI6 is known throughout the novel. After 100 pages of pleasant confusion, it suddenly clicked, and I felt as if I was eavesdropping on Smiley and his assistant Guillam as they in turn shadow the potential Circus traitors.

Written and set in the early 1970s, Tinker Tailor reads like something of a period piece now. The Cold War is very much a reality, the Iron Curtain is still solid and the idea of an office with a computer is laughable. These spies are middle-aged, largely unattractive characters, with dysfunctional personal relationships and distinctly unglamorous lifestyles - Prideaux, dismissed from the Circus after being unmasked and shot in Czechoslovakia, teaches at a shabby prep school and lives in a caravan. Smiley spends much of the novel hiding out at a seedy hotel where the proprietor's adult son listens at the doors of honeymoon couples. James Bond this ain't; Spooks this even ain'ter. There's very little action as such, Smiley being an introspective, thoughtful introvert rather than a man who chases around London waving guns, and the whole novel is bleak, pessimistic and ever so slightly grubby. These are real spies, who use dead letter drops and microfilm and miniature cameras and secret codes, and position single hairs over door jambs to ascertain if someone has entered secretly and speak fluent Czech.

And I loved it. I couldn't put it down. Perhaps because every character is so vivid and believable, and perhaps because it's just so much more than a spy novel. It's a novel about obsession, about betrayal, about futility, and the gradual drip-drip effect one one's psyche of having to trust nobody and largely living a lie. Smiley himself is unable to rid himself of his nagging fixation with Karla, his opposite number at the KGB; in a series of flashbacks, we learn how a sick, feverish Smiley had the opportunity to recruit Karla as a defector in India once but simply ended up pouring out his marriage woes - and indeed, Smiley is still being humiliated by his wife's indiscretions. Smiley's failed marriage becomes inextricably entwined with his attempts to uncover the Circus mole, and a strong sense of melancholy prevails throughout. It was almost a wrench to leave Smiley's Cold War world.

Next book on my list, since it's Halloween, is Adam Nevill's The Ritual.  


  1. Good idea!

    As I remember it, I used to like your writing a lot ;)

  2. I have always found Le Carre books hard to get my head round as there often seems to be more to the story than what is written and you jump around different points in time as the story unravels. I bought A Perfect Spy some years back, but found it hard to take in, so did not get far in to it.
    The BBC produced a series which I managed to get copies of, but am yet to watch. From the same source I obtained "Smiley's People" and enjoyed that. Reading your post has fueled my interest in "A Perfect Spy" so I must make a commitment to watch it.
    My father watched "Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy" found this dramatization very dark. I'm yet to see it.
    As an aside, I have loved Len Deighton and his trilogies. Particularly the audiobook version read by Michael Jayston.


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