Thursday, July 16, 2020

On the Coffee Table: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Title: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Author: John le Carré
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Wikipedia
via Wikipedia
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is probably spy novel master John le Carré's most famous single novel and with good reason (read here).   His most famous character, though, is George Smiley and The Quest for Karla is the series which brings the man into full bloom.  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first book of that trilogy, one which has inspired numerous screen adaptations.  The role of Smiley is a powerful lure for actors, having drawn such major talents as Alec Guiness and Gary Oldman.  Much of the character has been clearly established in previous books: quiet, inconspicuous, cuckolded, politically naïve and undeniably brilliant at the job.  In TTSS, we finally get to explore his world in full.

Smiley has been forced out of the Circus, the nickname of his (fictional) agency within the British Secret Service.  Control, his former boss and main supporter, is dead.  Powerful people outside the agency, however, are worried about the current state of affairs at the Circus and they recruit Smiley to sort it out.  An agent has come in from the field and it soon becomes obvious his cover was blown.  In fact, Circus agents are being blown all over the world, most conspicuously in an incident in Czechoslovakia.  Some suspect a mole within the agency and Smiley sets about finding him.

Le Carré's genius is character building.  As noted above, Smiley was already clearly established for those who had read previous books and we also get beautiful development for several in the supporting cast including his right-hand man Peter Guillam, his rival Bill Haydon, field agent Jim Prideaux and Smiley's deliciously enigmatic nemesis Karla (Patrick Stewart in the Guiness interpretation, an empty chair in Oldman's).  Smiley's interview of Karla is the highlight of the tale in all versions.  In the end, the story becomes an exploration of motivation.  What keeps you in the game?  What could inspire you to betray: patriotism, loyalty, money, ideology, love, adventure?

Le Carré shares Martin Scorcese's gift for realism.  His spies are neither James Bond nor Jason Bourne.  They are the unassuming English gentleman walking home from work, the little old lady next door who dotes on her dog, the eccentric French teacher at a boarding school.  As a reader, it was a jarring experience trading off this ultra-realism with pure Harry Potter fantasy.

I know both the Guiness and Oldman versions so I already knew whodunit.  However, the film versions take significant liberties with the book.  I am eager to revisit them now that I know the original story better.

And, of course, I'm excited for the next book: The Honourable Schoolboy.


  1. As I've said before, these books are on my list of books I want to read.
    Who knows if I will ever get to them, though.

    1. Now that I've arrived at this one, I can say that you can skip most of the ones before. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is still a must. Call for the Dead is good for Smiley development but not essential for understanding TTSS.

  2. His spies are neither James Bond nor Jason Bourne.

    Read a cheesy .99 cent kindle spy novel once that while heavy on the action, mentioned the same point.

    It was written in first person with the spy saying a good agent is someone who draws no attention and can easily get lost in a crowd. As someone raised on James Bond stories with 007 walking into a casino wearing a tuxedo and flashing around thousands in cash, such a point was an eyeopener.

  3. I think you'd enjoy the Smiley books. Please see my advice to Andrew above.