Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

George Smiley’s world just got a whole lot more complicated.

The man he knew as “Control” is dead, and the young Turks who forced him out now run the “Circus” – the uppermost level of the British Secret Intelligence Service. But retired agent Smiley isn’t out of the game yet – especially when a would-be defector appears out of nowhere with a devestating accusation: a Soviet spy has penetrated the Circus. Recruiting his wits and a few loyal friends, Smiley launches an undercover investigation and sets a trap to catch the mole.

“It’s the oldest question of all, George: who can spy on the spies?”

Written in 1974  – and comprising the first installment of John le Carre’s Karla trilogy – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an espionage thriller of the highest order: intelligent, thrilling, and complex. Even though the Cold War  (during which the story is set) is now over, the tension of Le Carre’s narrative remains as taut and unrelenting as ever.

That said, readers expecting James Bond-like exploits will be disappointed. There are no blazing gunfights, techy gadgets, high-speed car chases, crazy stunts, or underdressed females: the action here is primarily psychological. It’s a battle of wits, a mental melee, as Smiley and his loyal cadre race against time to expose the traitor in their midst. To be sure, the book takes some time to work through, but the payoff is extraordinary.

John le Carre – the nom de plume of David John Moore Cornwell – was himself an agent for the British foreign-intelligence service, working under the cover of “Second Secretary” in Bonn, and eventually transferring to Hamburg as a political consul. His experience in that sphere makes itself apparent in his writing: the story may be a complete work of fiction, but it reads like something that could’ve really happened.

Le Carre’s writing is top-notch, slowly but surely building suspense over the course of 350 pages, and spinning a smartly-complicated web of intrigue, double-cross, and political machination. The dialogue is smooth, the descriptions vivid, the atmosphere convincing. And yet as good as the story itself was, it was ultimately the slew of fascinating characters that made me love the book as much as I did. From Ricky Tarr and Peter Guilliam, to Jim Prideaux and George Smiley – all of them leap to life under the expertise of Le Carre’s pen.

Smiley, in particular – who was apparently modeled after one of Le Carre’s real-life acquaintances, Vivian H. Green – is now one of my favorite literary characters: quiet, calm, perceptive, clever; troubled and grieved by the infidelity of his wife, Anne; loyal to his country and friends; and fully aware of the morally-ambiguous – yet altogether necessary – nature of his work. There’s nothing Bond-like about him; his demeanor is closer to that of a village clerk. Yet even though he’s “breathtakingly ordinary”, there’s something undeniably extraordinary about him.

Content-wise, there’s not much to be concerned about. PG-level language is scattered throughout, and physical violence is all but non-existent. Numerous references are made to the adulterous relationship carried on by Smiley’s wife, but Le Carre never goes into graphic detail. The main deterrent for younger readers is the complexity of the plot, which requires a fair amount of patience and attention to follow.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a challenging, thoughtful, and thoroughly engrossing espionage novel, one of the best I’ve ever read.

As Richard Locke wrote in The New York Times, “There are those who read crime and espionage books for the plot and those who read them for the atmosphere; the former talk of ‘ingenious puzzles’ and take pride in ‘pure ratiocination’; the latter think themselves more literary, worry about style and characterization, and tend to praise their favorite writers as ‘real novelists.’ Le Carre’s books offer plenty for both kinds of readers.”

31 thoughts on “Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”

  1. That sounds like a good book! I think I’ll put it on my list.

    By the way, I saw on your reading list, that you read “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson and I was wondering, what did you think of it? Are you planning to review it at all? I’ve been considering reading it.

    To the KING be all the glory!

    1. Treasure Island is a classic, and one of my favorite reads. I strongly recommend you check it out, as I’m sure you’d love it. I may do a full-length review of it as some point – we’ll see. :D

    1. Thanks for commenting, Persis! Did you, by any chance, read the rest of the Karla trilogy? The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People are the next ones. After enjoying TTSS, I’m adding the sequels to next year’s reading list. :)

      1. I read the whole trilogy. Don’t ask me for any details because I can’t remember much. But I do remember liking the books. :-)

        (I like your snow.)

    1. Thank you, Hope! :) You’ll have to let me know what you think!

      And yes, the film adaption – starring Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, and Tom Hardy, among others – is hitting theaters this month. I’m sure Oldman will be perfect as Smiley.

  2. I’ve had The Spy Who Came in from the Cold on my To Be Read list for a long time, and I really need to pick it up. It’s not right that I’ve read no Le Carre. Cold War settings remind me of high school. But that probably dates me.

  3. Great review – I haven’t read TTSS, but the BBC did a series of radio dramas covering all of le Carre’s Smiley books a few years back. They were great – I’ve always wanted to check out the books to see if they were just as entertaining. Thanks!

  4. Now that the Oscars have been and gone, it is worth revisiting this book. It is still worth reading and it is a compelling story in a strange way. There was an excellent review of it on The Book Report Radio Show on Feb 25 2012. You can hear the archived shows on

  5. I’ve only just read this review but it was a nice appreciation. Tinker, Tailor is for my money still Le Carre’s best book with the balance of compelling plot, memorable character’s, and indelible style coming together perfectly as nowhere else in his work. The Honourable Schoolboy is an affecting, acutely written tragedy but isn’t a very *likeable* book though it *is* truthful while Smiley’s People is, despite good moments, too obvious in its hammering home the likenesses of the opposing intelligence services in their ruthlessness, it’s so relentlessly depressing , unforgiving, and mundane that one feels like yelling “okay, David, we GET IT!”. The Spy Who Came in for the Cold is of course a classic, A Perfect Spy has its admirers, and The Russia House isn’t bad.
    I thought the Tinker, Tailor film wasn’t bad but is over-rated and not a patch on the BBC serial which was much better-written and cast. Alec Guinness is the definitive Smiley, he *embodies* the character and even *looks* perfectly like him in comparison Oldman is rather flat. However he was fairly okay, the weakest casting was that of Benedict Cumberbatch as Guillam entirely too much of a bland public schoolboy compared to Michael Jayston, and Kathy Burke who didn’t approach Beryl Reid’s performance. I’d better stop while I’m ahead (!) but the actors playing Lacon, Esterhase and Alleline were also not a patch on the earlier portrayers. As I say it isn’t a bad film but it’s nowhere near as good as either book or serial. People tend to overpraise things now, in my opinion, and underrate the best of the past moaning about “slowness” I found parts of the film quite boring while the multi-part serial was considered but enthralling. Well, there’s my moan to a stranger for the day!

    1. People tend to overpraise things now, in my opinion, and underrate the best of the past moaning about “slowness”.

      Agreed. I’m greatly looking forward to watching the BBC serial, just as soon as it becomes available on Netflix. Then again, I may lose patience and just buy it… :)

  6. Well, I hope you enjoy it. It’s even got a great title sequence! It uses choral music for a theme, this idea was recently ripped off by the terrible, terrible BBC serial, a really ugly morally repugnant piece of work that also managed to be ludicrous at the same time. It was obviously trying to be a modern Edge of Darkness/Tinker, Tailor but was horribly written and incredibly nasty, something which the writer seemed to think was meaningful but merely felt like a squalid attempt to shock. Whoa, there’s Rant No. 2 ;).

  7. Oops, the “terrible, terrible BBC serial” was The Shadow Line. Avoid it if you haven’t seen it. It is baaad.

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