Tag Archives: tinker tailor soldier spy

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.”

On the Bookshelf

Knowing God by J.I. Packer
I can’t believe I’m only now discovering this book. What an amazing read, in every way deserving of the title “classic”. I’m about halfway through it at this point, and it’s quickly becoming a favorite.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre
I started this one primarily because I was interested in seeing the movie (which hits theaters next month). I’ve learned to appreciate it for its own merits, however, and I can honestly say that it’s one of the best espionage thrillers I’ve ever read. The plot is intricate and smart, the tension is gradually built but relentless, and George Smiley is now one of my all-time favorite literary characters.
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
A scathing and profound indictment of a media-drunk society obsessed with being “entertained”. Neil Postman is a brilliant writer, both smart and darkly humorous, and his examination of the cultural effects of show-business and television are eye-opening and thought-provoking.
Knox’s Irregulars by J. Wesley Bush
A sci-fi military thriller set in the 25th century. The author served as an airborne infantryman, military intelligence cryptolinguist, NGO worker, and historian… and he’s also a Reformed Christian. To quote one of the reviewers on Amazon.com, “Take a Tom Clancy novel like The Teeth Of The Tiger… set it in a universe like the one depicted in Firefly… sprinkle in a respect for the sensibilities of the Protestant Reformation, and you’ve got J. Wesley Bush’s new novel Knox’s Irregulars.”
Empire by Niall Ferguson
A well-written account of the rise and fall of the British World Order, as well a fascinating account of its impact – both positive and negative – on the surrounding world. I’m not entirely certain I agree with all of the author’s conclusions (and I don’t believe he’s writing from a Christian perspective), but nevertheless, it’s a superb read so far.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
What can I say? It’s a classic and I should’ve read it years ago. I’m not the biggest fan of Dickens’ – it is my personal opinion that he waxeth a little too verbose sometimes – but I have to say I’m really enjoying this one.
Carry a Big Stick by George Grant
An inspiring little biography of the inimitable Theodore Roosevelt, one of my favorite historical figures. I had to laugh at the Amazon.com reviews denouncing it as a “right-wing Christian propaganda piece”. *gasp* Well imagine that! A book about a Christian man written from a Christian perspective? *double gasp* Preposterous! How dare they…
Economics In One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt
Who knew economics could be so interesting and fun to study? Hazlitt does a superb job of making even the most complex economic theories easy to grasp, without dumbing them (or the reader) down. Concise, painlessly intructive, and a vigorous contender for free-market capitalism. Definitely recommended.
A Summary of Christian Doctrine by Louis Berkhof
A brief but instructive presentation of the Christian religion written in the 1960s. So far, very little of the subject matter is new to me (one of the advantages of growing up in a Christian home), but I always welcome a good “refresher”.

What’s on your bookshelf right now?

Books Every Guy Should Read (Pt. 2)

I told you the list wouldn’t end with part one. In fact, it won’t end with part 2, either…

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
One of the greatest novels ever written, and my all-time favorite piece of fiction. It’s a tale of desperate survival, unrestrained depravity, and courage in the face of horrifying odds. But most importantly, it is a love story; a powerful love story. One that passionately depicts the fierce, undying affection that burns between a father and his son.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
I really don’t know of anyone who hasn’t read this series. Timeless fantasy from the pen of a master writer.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
If I had to pick just one science fiction novel to call my favorite, it would almost certainly be this futuristic stunner from Ray Bradbury. It doesn’t revolve around aliens, robots, or mutating viruses. The primary focus is mankind… and the dangers inherent to a society that’s gone almost completely brain-dead.

Animal Farm by George Orwell
A classic, and one of those books that leaves a lasting impression on those who read it. Even though Stalinist Russia was the target when it was first written, its message is still crystal clear and relevant today.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
An intensely haunting picture of the deep dark ugliness that naturally lurks within the sinful heart of man. By no means a pleasant read, but worthwhile one nevertheless.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
This one will help you cultivate a “healthy interest” in devils, and also make you more acutely aware of the destructive ways in which Satan and his fallen angels work in the hearts, minds, and lives of men – especially Christians.

Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
Vintage Wodehouse. ‘Nuff said.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Eschewing the conventions of the Western genre, McCarthy paints a raw and unforgettable picture of the oft glamorized “wild west” and weaves a bleak but thought-provoking tale of human depravity and violence. Beneath the grit and the author’s exceptional prose, it’s an unforgettable story that reaches out and hits you in a way you’ll never forget.

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
There’s no denying Asimov’s talent for spinning an engrossing sci-fi yarn. This collection of short-stories is worth looking into, though caution should be exercised with regard to the author’s distinctly humanistic worldview.

The Holy War by John Bunyan
Most people recognize Bunyan as the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, but this one is every bit as good. An incredible tale of spiritual warfare and redemption. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre
I’m still working my way through this one, but so far, I have to say it’s one of the best espionage novels I’ve ever read. The story is intelligent, the characters are colorful and multi-dimensional, and the psychological tension is well-crafted.

The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander
Another classic fantasy series, delightfully rich in story, characters, and adventure.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
If you’ve seen the movie Men In Black (1997), you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say that this book is the literary equivalent of that movie. Funny, funny, funny.

Fear Is the Key by Alistair MacLean
An intelligent thriller that grabs you from the first page. It’s fast-paced, intense, and unpredictable. And I really mean unpredictable: you’ll never know where your going until you get there. And, in the case of this novel at least, that’s a good thing.

Have any recommendations of your own? Any book you think should be featured in future installments of this list? If so, be my guest and share ‘em down in the comments section.