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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.”