I have just finished reading Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy by John le Carré and just had to write a review. The one genre of fiction that I’m not normally that interested in is crime / thriller/ spy – style books. However, I had been dragged to see the newish film version recently and it intrigued me enough to get the book.
What I found was that I loved both Le Carré’s writing and the character George Smiley. Smiley, who’s faithless wife is the ‘last illusion of an illusionless man’; Smiley who is self-contained, sharp as a razor and as honourable as a spy can be. I loved the complexity of this novel and the mind games.
In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley is recalled from retirement to find a mole, a double-agent for the Russian Spymaster Karla, at the very top of ‘the Circus’, the British intelligence service. He has his suspects; Alleline, Bland, Esterhase and Haydon; and he proceeds to reel them in with the help of Peter Guillam, Head of the Scalphunters (assassins, field operatives, blackmailers), Inspector Mendel and Ricki Tarr (a field operative). The novel is densely plotted, quietly violent, menacing and almost philosophical in its meditation on loyalty, patriotism, betrayal and loneliness. I expected none of this emotional and intellectual punch from a thriller and it took my breath away.
The most striking thing for me about this book is how real it felt. Perhaps an odd thing to mention, but everything felt relentlessly real, from the steamed car windows, the gloomy grey of seventies London, the characters and the futility of each side: ‘Don’t you think it is time to recognise that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?’. Le Carré had been in the intelligence service and reportedly based Tinker Tailor Solider Spy loosely on his own experiences of the discovery of the ‘Cambridge Five’ and Kim Philby in particular. This experience shines through and adds up to a story that looks, tastes and smells as real, mundane and extraordinary as everyday life. A classic!