Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy by John le Carre

Book info:

Book form: e-pub file

Genre: spy thriller with some philosophy
Target audience: adults

A quote to give you some idea what you are dealing with:

“’It is the perfect fix: you see that, don’t you, Toby, really?’ Smiley remarked in a quiet, rather distant way. ‘Assuming it is a fix. It makes everyone wrong who’s right: Connie Sachs, Jerry Westerby… Jim Prideaux… even Control. Silences the doubters before they’ve even spoken out… the permutations are infinite, once you’ve brought off the basic lie. Moscow Centre must be allowed to think she has an important Circus source; Whitehall on no account must get wind of the same notion. Take it to its logical conclusion and Gerald would have us strangling our own children in their beds.”

Not understanding anything? Don’t worry, you are in a good company…


This is the first book of the Karla Trilogy by former British intelligence officer “John le Carre'” (David John Moore Cornwell), featuring the ex-spy George Smiley. At first glance he is your average older guy who simply doesn’t know what to do with his retirement. Smiley has not retired with dignity, mind you, but rather has been fired for backing the wrong man. The head of MI5, called simply Circus, a spy so elusive that people only knew him as “Control,” went out in a blaze of tragedy, and Smiley’s career was one of the casualties. The same things happen all the time in every bigger company. Control was trying to find a mole. He failed and the Circus has been reorganized. So who watches the watchmen? Somebody has to. George Smiley seems to fit the bill as he has nothing to lose, doesn’t he?

All of a sudden he is given a pretext to return – he is asked to investigate the identity of the “mole” . He is helped by Peter Guillam, an active spy and, as we follow those two we learn a lot about the MI5 history and inner workings. It is a world of lies, scandals, espionage, double or even triple agents but hardly a glamorized fairy tale James Bond style. Mistrust and paranoia is as natural as snow in the Arctic, office politics are indistinguishable from international espionage and even your closest friend might prove to be your deadliest enemy. And vice versa. I really don’t feel like presenting all the twists and turns of the plot – just rest assure the book is densely twisted and consists of many puzzles – see the quote above.

What I liked:

The book was very original indeed – however you must know that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not a novel for fans of the real literature of action. Instead, this is a book for people interested in less known but far more accurate facts concerning the spying job – a job like many other dirty, dangerous and difficult occupations, just with a higher risk factor.

As far as spies go, George Smiley is very far removed from James Bond and Jason Bourne. He is an averagely looking man past his prime and his glamorous wife, Ann, has cheated on him many times (guess why. I liked this description of him:

“For a space, that was how Smiley stood: a fat, barefooted spy, as Ann would say, deceived in love and impotent in hate, clutching a gun in one hand, a bit of string in the other, as he waited in the darkness.”

It’s true, George Smiley is not even jealous or complaining a lot anymore – after all you shouldn’t demand too much from people. We’re invited to consider what’s going on inside his head — and he’s still a master spy who knows pretty well that you can buy or ‘seduce’ anyone, it’s only a matter of using the right leverage. Sometimes you fail but if you are good at it you will be successful most of the time.

After a while I thought that the world of spies and secret agents was merely an excuse for an unsparing examination of human betrayal in its many forms. Romantic, marital, parental, institutional and governmental structures all corrode from the vanity and ambition of the protagonists. Friendship is not possible as characters tenuously holding on to their probity are the ones most used and discarded. A bleak world, fit for times when everything seems relative.

It also seems to me this book was written to be a counter point to the James Bond films. Instead of rocket packs and laser wrist watches, it is a realistic portrayal of espionage as a business conducted mainly by middle aged bureaucrats in dusty ministry offices. The tone is melancholic and philosophical – it is not your ordinary “spy thriller” for sure.

Finally the character of Jim Prideaux I found very nicely constructed and quite intriguing, though his inner life, contrary to that of Smiley’s, remains a mystery and yes, he and Ann cheated on poor George as well.

What I didn’t like:

I can be considered shallow now but there were places in this book which made me annoyed. It is simple, from time to time I wanted some action – you know, these car chases, sword-play, karate, parachute-jumping,  maybe some poison or such. In other words, I wanted a story that actually had a certain aim – going there, destroying this or killing that. I waited in vain – it is simply not that book. You should read it as if you tried to solve a puzzle, in peace and quiet, not hurrying to the finish. Sometimes I admit I lacked the necessary patience – I kept forgetting who plays what role and who cooperates with whom against the evil mole. A bit disconcerting, don’t you think? Oh well…still it is a minor quibble.

Final verdict:

Definitely a novel worth your attention but a) if you expect a real thriller you might be disappointed; b) if you think it qualifies as entertaining “light reading” e.g. for a day on a beach or a long journey think again; c) if you don’t like solving complex puzzles while reading you might find the plot hard to follow. Still it rings true and that fact is worth far more than James Bond’s fireworks or Jason Bourne’s kicks.

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