If you live in the States and watch at least fifteen minutes of TV a day, you’ve probably seen the movie trailers for the new film starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth called Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And if you’re thinking about seeing said film any time soon, then it’s a good thing you happened across my blog at this oh-so-opportune moment. Today I’m reviewing the original novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré, which is fortunate for you since we all know that only half-wits and culturally bereft clods go to see movies before they’ve read the original books.
Yeah, you heard me. The gauntlet has been thrown!
I keed, I keed. Though we all know the book is always better than the movie… unless you see the movie first, and then it’s the other way around. I made that mistake once myself, watching The Bourne Identity before I read the original Ludlum novel. Totally ruined the book for me. Or maybe Ludlum did that himself, I dunno. But I digress, and there’s a review we need to get to.
Now then. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy isn’t as critically acclaimed as John le Carré’s earlier novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but it’s still an unquestioned classic of the spy novel. It’s the first in le Carré’s informal “Karla Trilogy,” which also includes The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. The book begins scant months after the leadership of the Circus (the colloquial term used for MI6, the foreign secret service branch of British intelligence) has been usurped due to a botched operation in Communist Czechoslovakia (did I mention it was published in 1974?) and the old guard put out to pasture. The head of the organization, known as Control, is dead from heart failure, and his right hand man, George Smiley, has been forcibly retired. Now the only thing the short and tubby Smiley has to occupy himself is worrying about his habitually philandering wife. Enter Peter Guillam, an old associate of Smiley’s from the service, who takes him to meet with an agent named Ricki Tarr who has a very interesting story to tell. Tarr has managed to turn (and shag mercilessly) the wife of a Russian spy abroad. During their post-coital interludes the young lady tells him that the Russians have a mole within the Circus, a high-ranking operative code-named “Gerald,” and he of course brings the information back home.
Smiley immediately connects the dots between the possible mole and the blown operation that sank the previous administration within the Circus. With the help of Guillam and some other civil service officials outside of MI6, he begins his search for the double agent. Unlike your typical spy thrillers (James Bond comes to mind off-hand), Smiley’s method of investigation is way more realistic—if not marginally less titillating. That is to say, the investigation is comprised mostly of interviewing old agents, reading Circus documents, and dredging up old memories from his time in the service. With meticulous care le Carré weaves the story of the rise of Percy Alleline (Control’s replacement as the head of MI6), Karla (a Russian master spy and the mind behind Gerald), and the Czechoslovakian operation that spelled the doom of the Circus old guard. Slowly Smiley peels the layers off the onion to find the true identity of the mole.
Le Carré is the bar against which all other espionage thrillers are measured. His mastery is mostly due, in this reader’s opinion, to two things: the realistic measure with which he approaches the spy game, and the depth and complexity of his characters—both of which have a way of bleeding into one another. Le Carré’s version of international espionage is not a black and white affair, a fight between the good guys and the bad guys. It’s a contest between two powers who both use duplicitous, cold and calculating means to maneuver themselves into a position of strength. Networks are blown, assets executed, people sacrificed like pawns on a chessboard. And just like chess, it’s a slow game, a game of inches—not the fast-paced action of traditional spy thrillers. It’s a contest that is won through careful analysis of people and documentation, through sifting through the fact and fiction in order to arrive at the truth. It actually sounds pretty boring, if you’re used to more action in your thrillers, but le Carré manages to make it all very interesting.
And just like the realism of his narrative (well, realistic enough to still make a good story), he uses that same verisimilitude in developing and rendering his characters. And it’s not just his main characters either. Minor, mostly non-consequential characters still get painted with a realistic brush—almost as if le Carré is doing it by instinct. The main characters are painfully detailed, complex creations that you could swear you’ve met before. Take Smiley for instance. He’s a short, fat, balding little man with a keen intellect and a gentle demeanor. He’s also a master spy and a deft manipulator, a man who is very, very good at his job. But his personal life is a mess. His beautiful aristocratic wife is constantly cheating on him and spending his money, but he can’t bring himself to divorce her, can’t even bring himself to hate her. He loves her, perhaps because she’s so “out of his league” that he doesn’t want to give up even his tenuous connection to her. Smiley can’t even bring himself to hate his friend and coworker, Bill Haydon, who carries on an affair with his wife. He pushes down the hurt and goes on with his life, saying nothing. The character is so complex and well-rounded you could easily see him as a living, breathing person, which is why le Carré’s novels are so striking.
The only thing that might keep me from giving this book a perfect five-star rating was the fact that it took me a little while to get into it. It simply didn’t grip me for the first 1/4 of the book. I have to think that it was because of some failing on my part, especially considering my glowing praise of the rest of le Carré’s body of work. Maybe I was spending too much time trying to decipher all the British-isms? I don’t know. But since I don’t have a graphic for a four and a half star rating and because a four star rating doesn’t at all do it justice, I’m just going to go for broke. I give Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré five stars.
If this review has piqued your interest (or you’ve been appropriately shamed into reading the book before seeing the film) you can purchase your very own copy of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or any of his other books at Amazon. Follow the links below and it’ll take you right there. It’ll also give me a little kickback if you happen to buy the book, but that’s just between you me and the fencepost. Ain’t capitalism grand?