Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by John le Carre

My Copy: 9780143120933

This is the 2nd time I read this book–the first time, the movie was just coming out and I really wanted to finish the book before seeing it (didn’t happen, I admit). As I read this time, I had more hours to dedicate and was able to take my time absorbing it. That was good because for a couple of nights, I couldn’t sleep until I’d found a decent stopping point.

I realized that because of my previous impatience, there were big chunks of the story that I’d missed. I’d never read a Le Carre story before, so I didn’t realize the complexity of the work and what my attention span would have to be.

I’m glad I took my time this time around.


Film still from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) of Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman. Can you understand my impatience? Many of my fave Brit character actors in one movie…and I promised myself I’d see it on the big screen. Yeah, I broke my main book & film rule, but… (continues grumbling excuses)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was first published in 1974, so some of the story elements have been hijacked by other authors and films, the main one being ferreting out a traitor in your midst. In this case, when our book starts, George Smiley’s the main character, and is out of the loop. He used to be Control’s right-hand man in the Circus, or intel-gathering in Britain. However, thanks to a botched operation and other agents getting the goods for months that Control couldn’t, Control was dropped–and Smiley with him–and some of their colleagues have taken over leadership. Smiley, however, gets wind through former colleagues on the fringes that a could-be-Soviet defector has told one of their operatives that a Soviet mole exists in the highest circle of the Circus.

If anybody’s a major James Bond fan, they might find this book (and other Le Carre books) jarring, because the usual fictional-spy tropes aren’t all there. This is quiet spycraft, more in the real world. Readers used to Bond might find the cyclical discussions and ferreting out of information dull compared to the explosions, sex and guns they’re used to. An easy way to describe Le Carre’s work is “more cerebral.” You have to use some brain power to follow what’s going on, so this is not a quick read.

Doesn’t mean you have to draw a flow chart or diagram to follow it, either (unless that’s your schtick).

I have to say it amazed me what a story this was. It’s a great story about deception and truth, but not over-the-top or melodramatic. This feels like a story that could happen and maybe did (there’s a bit of the Cambridge Five scandal in its pages–loosely–and especially Kim Philby). More understanding of the true nature of spycraft and intelligence could help the reader, and a pretty thorough examination (within one article) can be found here.

As someone who is definitely American and not British, some of the slang and “givens” were a bit foreign to me–no pun intended. But the overall story works so well it makes me want to read more. I had fun puzzling out what Smiley found so important. The character of Smiley is interesting just as he is, a rather even-tempered man with disappointments and guilt, saddled with a promiscuous wife who can never speak straight (at least, in his recollections). Because he is so even, though, we can look at things the way he does, and not be prone to fits of anger and such that would probably distract (as anger often does). When he’s surprised, we can be surprised (and maybe go back a few pages to understand a little of why), but it won’t give anything away. I wish Le Carre could give a MasterClass on writing intricate mysteries. I kept guessing and guessing what would come out next.

Now, the complexity of the story did stop me at times. I had some confusion regarding the characters, since the action takes place in many different locations and points of time. People show up and disappear quite often, so it made some of the names tough to keep track of, especially when going between last names, first names, aliases (on the other hand, why not make it as complex as the spy world really would be?). Some characters even dropped out of sight a while and it took a moment to remember who they were referring to.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a fantastic spy novel, and a quiet one. I’d definitely recommend reading it, and not just once, but several times. It’s like a good complex movie or painting where you catch something new each time. I mean, you may know the end result, but some of the things that might’ve escaped your notice the first time around will come out in Technicolor the next. I think there’s something to gain and more to enjoy the more you read it.

And yes, many elements are rather different than the 2011 movie, which would probably be best to watch AFTER reading the book…no matter how good the actors (whimper).tinker_tailor_soldier_spy_28film29

One thought on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by John le Carre

Penny for your thoughts? We'll listen...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.