Sunday, 13 October 2013


Let me begin this with a caution: Anyone, who expects fast-paced action sequences, explosions, body counts, and a clear idea of good and bad - along the lines of James Bond or Jason Bourne spy thrillers  - will be disappointed. John le Carré's Cold War novels feature unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work, and engaged in psychological more than physical drama, where much of the conflict they are involved in is internal, rather than external and visible.

While I had read The Spy Who Came in from the Coldle Carré's third and  best-known novel, many years ago and remember having been fascinated by the intricate plot, the author wove, I had somehow missed to read this thriller, written in 1974 and made into a movie in 2011, starring Gary Oldman. Since I remembered that his stories unravel slowly, I was looking forward to another plot that creates a battle of wits or mental melee. I can honestly say upfront that with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy John le Carré expertly created a total vision of a secret world that guides us through George Smiley's chess match of wills and wits with Karla, his Soviet counterpart.

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley, the novel's protagonist, a taciturn, middle-aged intelligence officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service, who had previously been forced into retirement, is recalled to hunt down a Soviet mole in the highest echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service, called the "Circus." While the previous head of British Intelligence (only known by his code name "Control") had suspected this and had sent an agent (Jim Prideaux) to Czechoslovakia in 1972 to gather intelligence about this from an allegedly defecting Czech general, this operation had been blown not the least because of this mole and had cost many at the Circus their jobs, including Control and George Smiley.

Meanwhile, Control had died, taking his fears of betrayal to the grave. Now the murmured possibility of a mole has emerged once more, and the list of suspects has been narrowed to four senior intelligence officers, who all benefited from Control's dismissal years ago, and who each had received a code name culled from a nursery rhyme: Percy Alleline = Tinker; Bill Haydon = Tailor; Roy Bland = Soldier; and Toby Esterhase, = Poorman. Smiley himself was once the fifth man—labelled Beggarman, but for obvious reasons was no longer suspect. As an ex-spy, he is in the clear, and ideally placed to come in from the cold, at the invitation of the Cabinet Office, and find the culprit. Smiley and his small gang of trusted friends have little time to find the double-agent. And, then there is also the agent Jim Prideaux, a broken man, after being shot, arrested by the Russians, tortured, sent back to England, and dismissed from the Circus.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not an easy novel to read. While it slowly but surely builds suspense and the dialogue is smooth, it has a complex plot, which requires a fair amount of patience and attention to follow. In addition, the characters use a great deal of spy jargon which is presented as the authentic insider-speak of British Intelligence, but Le Carré admitted that this was invented by him. Nonetheless, their ongoing use require even greater attention from the reader to stay with the story plot.

In closing, I seriously enjoyed the book and can only recommend Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. While I realize that it may not be the kind of espionage story that everyone will like, I found it to be a challenging, thoughtful, and engrossing novel. Coincidentally, I actually happened to watch the 2011 movie while being 2/3 through the book, and - as you may have guessed - the book is better.

As The Guardian newspaper book review so eloquently summarized: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is fluently written; it is full of vivid character sketches of secret agents and bureaucrats from all levels of British society, and the dialogue catches their voices well. The social and physical details of English life and the day to day activities of the intelligence service at home and abroad are convincing. Unlike many writers Le Carré is at his best showing men hard at work; he is fascinated by the office politics of the agency since the war." 

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