Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

“He had that art, from miles and miles of secret life, of listening at the front of his mind; of letting the primary incidents unroll directly before him while another, quite separate faculty wrestled with their historical connection.”


Fueled by the promise of a new film version of John le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I requested a review copy from netgalley. I went through a le Carré phase some years ago, but Gary Oldman as Smiley brought back waves of nostalgia for the reading pleasure I once exacted from le Carré. Would I be as impressed by Smiley’s world the second time around? And the answer to that question is a resounding: YES!

John Le Carré (aka David John Moore Cornwall) is best known for his spy novels, and I should add that he worked for some years, in the very juicy 50s and 60s, for MI5 and MI6 before his extremely successful writing career. His professional background must be taken into account for authenticity leaps off the pages. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first novel in the Karla Trilogy; the other novels are The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. The novel contains jargon specific to the Circus (MI6), and you might want to acquaint yourself with the Circus lexicon before reading the book. There’s a nice explanation on Wikipedia, but the page also reveals key elements of the plot.

But back to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy–a slight deviation from a children’s nursery rhyme, and what a perfect title that is. Watching James Bond films may create the illusion that being a spy is great escapist fun. After all, where else would you get those fast cars, incredible gadgets, and sexy, voluptuous women? But le Carré shows us that the spy game is deadly serious, and no one takes it more seriously than Smiley–the protagonist of the novel.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy finds George Smiley in forced retirement from MI6, and he’s not happy about it. Put out to a rather bleak ‘pasture’, Smiley is depressed and bored. It doesn’t help that he and his wife, Ann are separated–the only traces left of her in his life are the bills he keeps receiving for her extravagant flings and bank notification that she’s grabbing most of his pension. Just as he’s ready to accept that he should sell his London home and move to the country, he’s contacted by someone from his past, Peter Guillam, the head of the Scalphunters–a division in MI6 which deals with kidnapping, murder, and blackmail.

Smiley was eased out the Circus along with the head man, known as Control, the year before. Both men were seen as dinosaurs and considered “as close as thieves”  who could no longer cope with the demands of the shifting espionage world. Consequently the reins of power changed hands– Smiley and a few others loyal to Control (who’s now dead of cancer) were booted out, and the Circus is now run by Percy Alleline, and his deputies Bill Haydon, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase.  Here’s Guillam explaining the radical changes at the Circus:

In your day, the Circus ran itself by regions. Africa, satellites, Russia, China, South East Asia, you name it: each region was commanded by its own juju man; Control sat in heaven and held the strings. Remember?

It strikes a distant chord

Well, today everything operational is under one hat. It’s called London Station. Regions are out, lateralism is in. Bill Haydon’s Commander London Station, Roy Bland’s his number two, Toby Esterhase runs between them like a poodle. They’re a service within a service. They share their own secrets and don’t mix with the proles. It makes us more secure.

Smiley is drawn back to the spy world when Guillam takes him to meet Oliver Lacon, a civil service officer responsible for the Intelligence services. Lacon has arranged for Smiley to have a secret meeting with agent Ricki Tarr–a rather shifty figure who tells a story of a passionate affair with Irina, the wife of a Russian agent.  In the throes of passion, ready to defect and terrified of the consequences, she revealed that she had an enormous secret regarding the identity of a mole, known as “Gerald [was] a high functionary in the Circus.” Although Irina was set to defect and arrangements were made for a special plane to whisk her to Britain, something went wrong. She was drugged and whisked off to Moscow instead. Realising that his cover’s been blown, and fearing for his life, Tarr subsequently dropped out of sight. Now he’s resurfaced to tell his tale to Lacon and Smiley.

This information sends Smiley on the hunt for the mole–and really he’s picking up where he left off as both he and an increasingly paranoid Control suspected a mole in British Intelligence after the failure of a critical operation in Czechoslovakia. Smiley never stoops to resort to “I-told-you-so” recriminations as he is all too aware that precious time has been lost, and now that he’s outside the Circus, it will be no easy task to unmask the mole.  As Lacon notes:

We can’t move. We can’t investigate because all the instruments of enquiry are in the Circus’s hands, perhaps in the mole Gerald’s. We can’t watch, or listen, or open mail. To do any one of those things would require the resources of Esterhase’s lamplighters, and Esterhase like anyone else must be suspect. We can’t interrogate; we can’t take steps to limit a particular person’s access to delicate secrets. To do any of these things would be to run the risk of alarming the mole. It’s the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?

So it’s Smiley’s job to hunt for the mole… Smiley discovers that one of the biggest elements at the Circus is source Merlin: a secret highly-funded operation in which intelligence information is seeping from the Soviet Union, and he suspects that this information is deliberately created to obfuscate British Intelligence.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an incredibly well crafted novel that explores the increasingly uneasy world at the Circus and also Smiley’s intense mental world as he hides out at a drab hotel which becomes his “operational headquarters.” While the world of the global spy networks has a sort of sordid glamour–replete with intrigue, false identities and dangerous missions, the most fantastic aspects of this novel reveal the labyrinths of intrigues at MI6 and the human capacity to deceive :

The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal. The fifty-year-old who knocks five years off his age. The married man who calls himself a bachelor; the fatherless man who gives himself two children … Or the interrogator who projects himself into the life of a man who does not speak. Few men can resist expressing their appetites when they are making a fantasy about themselves.

There’s a marvellous intro from le Carré in this edition in which he describes the extremely fine line of the role of the double agent:

For while on one side the secret traitor will be doing his damnedest to frustrate the efforts of hos own service, on the other he will be building himself a successful career in it, providing it with the coups and the grace-notes that it needs to justify its existence, and generally passing himself off as a capable and trustworthy fellow, a good man on a dark night.

Le Carré’s novel was published in 1974, and it’s impossible to overlook the influence of the scandalous affair of the so-called Cambridge Spies, so it’s not surprising that in the intro, Le Carré also goes on to discuss Blake and Philby–admitting to “a particular dislike for Philby, and an unnatural sympathy for Blake.”  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not fluff, and it’s not a particularly light or easy book to read, so be prepared to concentrate. The author’s depiction of this other shady world creates an intensity that’s difficult to forget.

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26 Comments

Filed under Fiction, le Carré John

26 responses to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

  1. John Le Carre introduced me to the spy world. That is one reason why I applied to the CIA. My fave is ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’, but this is a close second.

  2. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is my fav too

  3. I’ve only read The spy who came in from the cold, years ago. I remember enjoying it, but not a lot of detail now. I saw the 1979 BBC series of Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy … and loved it. I’m really looking forward to seeing this film … but I probably won’t read the book, just for time reasons.

  4. I remember now that I have read a review of this that was very intriguing. I have no idea why I never read anything apart from The Constant Gardener which I think was very well written too. I’m not so much into spy stories but you make it sound well worth reading.
    I will have to look for the movie too.

  5. leroyhunter

    Hurray! I was really interested to see what you made of this.

    The film is really a fine piece of work. It makes some key changes that allow it to work as a film, but the athmosphere, the tension and above all Oldman as Smiley are all spot-on, superb.

    Any plans to read the rest of the trilogy? I have this down for a re-read, maybe if I get some time over Christmas.

    • I haven’t seen the film yet but I’m really looking forward to it. I hadn’t planned to reread the rest of the trilogy but I had thought about The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. At the moment I’m trying to finish old business for 2011. Not sure what the new year will bring.

  6. I’ve never read him though we have one at home (why people keep on offering books to my husband is a mystery to me) but I’m not attracted to the spy thing.
    It seems this one is a “grand cru” (how do you say that in English?) in that genre though.

  7. The great thing about the book is that is strongly psychological–none of that James Bond (or OSS 117) high drama. Smiley is set to solve a puzzle and a great deal of that takes place by the usual methods–putting the pieces together rather like the slow solution of a crime.

    Does he not read?

    • Does one or two books during the holiday count as reading? He’s more interested in economics and science magazines. He must be seen as a reader by association, that must be why we have Le Carré, Puzzo and three unread Indridalsons.
      PS: I didn’t know the word “mole”, so that’s an addition to my vocabulary, thanks.

  8. I do enjoy reading LeCarre when I want escapism and this review captured that aspect. Still, Smiley will be Alec Guinness forever in my mind I think, however good the new movie might be. I saw the videos before reading the books and he is perfect.

  9. This novel (and the two that follow to complete the trilogy) are all on my to-be-read list. The only le Carre I’ve read is “A Perfect Spy”, and, while I did enjoy that, it seemed to me that le Carre was at his best when writing in the thriller format. “A Perfect Spy” is only partly a thriller, and it’s noticeable that the novel seems to go up a few notches whenever the thriller elements come to the fore. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, “The Honorable Schoolboy” and “Simley’s People” are all, from what i gather, in the thriller format throughout, and are often reckoned to be his best.

    I have seen neither the film, or the highly acclaimed BBC dramatisation from the 1980s with Alec Guinness as Smiley, and would like to read the books before seeing these. After all, Graham Greene went out of his way to praise le Carre’s spy thrillers, and went into le Carre territory himself with “The Human Factor” (one of his best, I think) – so that’s good enough for me!

  10. Impressive review Guy. I was wondering what is the story of Tinker Soldier Spy ever since I saw the trailler, I want to watch it but it still hasn’t arrived in my country.

    Have u seen the movie? how is it compare to the book? I know the movie hasnt properly released, but maybe you’ve seen it in festivals.

    I am currently reading my first John Le Carre, it’s The Constant Garderner.

    • Thanks Novroz: I haven’t seen the film yet. I no longer go to the cinema due to a) cell phones b) picnics people insist on gobbling in the row behind me. I’ll wait for the DVD. Not sure how they’ll distill the book down into standard film format.

      What country are you in?

      • I am from Indonesia. lucky Indonesian people are still well behave in the cinema 🙂

        I would love to know how my favorite actor, Benedict Cumberbatch played Peter Guillam…whether he lived up to your imagination or not. He was really good as Sherlock.

        • I can be sitting in a cinema with only a handful of other people scattered throughout the place, and I guarantee someone noisy will sit behind me.

          I’ll let you know re: Guillam after I watch the DVD.

  11. I absolutely agree that this is incredibly well crafted. Like others, like you in fact, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is my favourite, but that’s no criticism of this. It’s just extremely accomplished.

    There’s a Furst review over at mine, but not of the best of his I’ve read. I’ve enjoyed his stuff, more than others here it seems, I liked his evocation of wartime Europe (and if how he does that doesn’t work for you then Furst won’t appeal at all, because that’s what he’s primarily about after all).

    Alec Guiness in the tv show is superb. I haven’t seen the Oldman version yet, and am looking forward to it, but the tv show will be hard to beat.

    Of course The Sandbaggers is the greatest tv spy show of all time…

    • Max: I only tried one Furst (can’t remember the title) so my evaluation is biased. Then again, it’s not easy to talk yourself into a second novel when you didn’t like the first.

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