Book review – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by John Le Carré

Oh my goodness, Rebecca is taking some very strange and unexpected turns – I wish I could write about them here but that would be unkind to anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the film. I’m not sure how I feel about the plot twists, at this point, but I’m like a junkie in my reading of it, just dying to get the next ‘fix’! But back to something much more sober – Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, a book that has been described as Le Carré’s “masterpiece”, and which you will recall was my Facebook Reading Challenge choice for February. A Cold War novel for a cold month!

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is the first in Le Carré’s so-called Karla trilogy in which he pits our hero, retired senior Secret Service operator and later chief, George Smiley, against his Russian opposite number and great nemesis, codenamed Karla. The novel opens at a minor public boys school to which former spy Jim Prideaux has been retired following a botched operation in Czechoslovakia where he was shot, captured and tortured by the Soviets.

The head of the Secret Service in London, known as Control, long suspected there was a mole in the outfit and shared some of his suspicions with Prideaux – the fateful mission to Czechoslovakia was partly intended to try and flush out the mole; Control has whittled down the candidates to a handful of the key operators in the Service whom he names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and so on.

Control dies of a heart attack, but more senior officials have learned of his suspicions and call in George Smiley from his rather bleak life of retirement to investigate secretly. Smiley has his own troubles; his wife has left him and it turns out she was having an affair with one of Smiley’s former colleagues (the inference is that she was lively and vivacious while George has become plump, tired and dull). Smiley is given support from an insider, a trusted current employee, Peter Guillam, to help him pursue the investigation that Control was never able to finish and they set up an undercover base operating out of a small hotel.

What ensues is a cat and mouse chase where Smiley gradually explores the motives and capacities of each of the suspects – Percy Alleline, Toby Esterhaze, George Haydon and Roy Bland. The investigation has to be conducted covertly to ensure none of the individuals learns of the suspicion surrounding the work of the Service. For Smiley, the investigation involves not only figuring out methods to get the information he needs and to reach the people who may be able to shed light on the murky inner workings of the organisation, but a sometimes painful reliving of past events which have brought him to his present state of lonely and purposeless existence.

The investigation also, of course, has the potential to breathe new life into Smiley and restore him to a position of status and importance. If he succeeds.

The plot of this novel is sometimes complex and difficult to follow – you really have to pay attention! I found it slow to start with, but then I got very sucked in and found it extremely compelling. The theme of last month’s reading challenge was something that has been adapted for screen and I had watched the film before reading the book. This was the wrong way around! As I was reading, the characters in my mind were the actors from the film and when these actors are Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kathy Burke, to name but a few, it is hard to forget them. The characters in the film did not quite match up with the way they were portrayed in the book, which was frustrating. Also, some elements of the plot were changed for the film (including the ending, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexuality!), presumably to make it a bit easier to squeeze into two hours, so that was confusing for me.

However, all in all, a very good read. In a previous life I worked for the Civil Service in Whitehall (nothing as exciting as diplomacy or intelligence, I’m afraid), and the book caused me to reminisce about those days a little. The atmosphere created in the book was one I recognised even though it was set over twenty years before my time (things don’t change very fast).

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first in a trilogy, and there are many other Le Carré novels that feature George Smiley and many more screen adaptations to explore. Having previously not felt too interested in Le Carré I have to say that this book has whetted my appetite!

Recommended.