Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is probably the most famous book in the Smiley series, and deservedly so. Once again, Smiley is retired (as in Call For the Dead and, apparently, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), and once again he is summoned out of that retirement, this time by the Cabinet Office’s Oliver Lacon, the bureaucrat charged with oversight of British Intelligence. Lacon charges Smiley with the task of ferreting out a mole in the organization. Everyone who works there now, including the four-man cabal running things, is a suspect. Smiley himself is in the clear only by virtue of his having been drummed out of the Circus (as le Carré refers to the Secret Service) a year prior following the ouster of the department’s longtime ringmaster Control. Control (since deceased) went somewhat bonkers in his final year, paranoid and obsessed with discovering the leak in his organization. With the aid of trustworthy confidante Peter Guillam (still officially employed by the Circus, but exiled to an outstation by the new regime), Smiley picks up where his late mentor left off and quickly determines that the mole has to be one of four men, all former colleagues of his: Bill Haydon, Roy Blunt, Toby Esterhase or Percy Alleline—the latter now occupying Control’s old position.
I’ll be honest: I love this book so much that I find it daunting to write about. John le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not only my favorite spy novel, but my favorite novel—period. I’m in awe of it. Every time I re-read it, it’s rewarding anew, revealing new secrets hidden within the labyrinthine folds of the author’s elegant, perfectly crafted prose. It’s at once comfortingly familiar and joltingly fresh every time. Even though I know the outcome, I always get caught up in spymaster George Smiley’s quest to root out a mole among his friends and former colleagues in the stuffy, lived-in halls of the British Secret Service.
An American Spy.)
Even more impressive than his sentence construction, however, is le Carré’s astoundingly intricate plot construction—his own devious arithmetic. Just as le Carré perfectly assembles words into mellifluous, multi-layered sentences, so he assembles those sentences into an equally multi-layered plot of staggering nuance and complexity. The book is put together like a puzzle. Rather than a traditional, straightforward narrative, readers are doled out individual pieces (or sometimes partially assembled sections), but the story still flows like a traditional narrative, always driven forward by Smiley’s dogged present-day investigation. That investigation consists largely of him in a hotel room, meticulously scouring old files through all hours of the night… but scouring old files has never been so exciting! (I gasp aloud every time I come to the ingenious final “knot” in Moscow spymaster Karla's master plan.)
Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 movie adaptation wasn’t its fidelity to the plot of the novel (many scenes were necessarily excised or altered completely), but its incredible fidelity to this highly effective narrative technique. To paraphrase my film review, screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan managed the impressive feat of “unpacking” all of le Carré’s loaded chapters and sentences and then repacking them in even smaller units for the film’s roughly 2-hour runtime.
Of course, the whole novel is spy fiction at its very best. Within it, le Carré manages to cover almost every aspect of the espionage trade, from uncovering moles to penetration to turning defectors to intelligence gathering and distribution to running networks to blowing networks to crossing borders to forged passports to surveillance (“lamplighter” work in le Carré’s world) to counter-surveillance to secret filing and bureaucracy to, yes, even “scalphunter” work: black bag missions and gunfire. There are even gadgets, if you count the wired walls in the “Witchcraft” safe house! Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy truly has it all. Sure, it’s a long, long way from Doctor No, but fans of the Fleming side of the spy genre may find themselves in more familiar territory here than they suspect, and every spy fan, whether they prefer serious or silly, desk men or field men, should read this book. It's simply without equal.
The Smiley Files
Part 1: George Smiley: An Introduction
Part 2: Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Part 3: Book Review: Call for the Dead (1961)
Part 4: Movie Review: The Deadly Affair (1966)
Part 5: Book Review: A Murder of Quality (1962)
Part 6: Movie Review: A Murder of Quality (1991)
Part 7: Book Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
Part 8: Book Review: The Looking Glass War (1965)