le Carré: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

April 2, 2019

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John le Carré
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1974)
349 p.

It has been a long time since I read a spy novel. This one, I know, has a good reputation. A few years ago I saw the film adaptation, which I admired, but could afterwards not have explained to you exactly what happened. I then watched the BBC mini-series, which is well-regarded, and, though I did a little better at unravelling the convolutions of the plot, it remained, in the end, something of a tangle.

I’ve done not much better with the book, I’m afraid. No doubt the difficulties are intrinsic to the story le Carré wants to tell, which lurks in dark corners and feeds on duplicity and subterfuge. The effect is like a hall of mirrors, where everything can be seen from more than one angle, and one is not sure where the truth lies.

The premise is well-known and won’t spoil anything: George Smiley, recently retired from MI6, is called back in to investigate rumours that the Soviets have a high-placed mole inside the UK’s security establishment. Smiley must track down the leads and ferret out the mole, a very delicate business.

When I think of the spy novel genre, I tend to think of action-packed books, like a James Bond tale. Le Carré’s novel is a different thing: although there are scenes of furious action, and a few of spy-craft, they are exceptional; the book is, instead, mostly dialogue, through which we come to know characters.

Le Carré lets us hear and see what Smiley hears and sees, but doesn’t give us much insight into what he is thinking. When Smiley does, therefore, finally arrive at a conclusion and make his move against the mole, I failed to understand his reasoning. The book gives every indication of having been carefully constructed, but I would be interested to know if that impression holds up under analysis.

Le Carré is quite a good stylist. His prose has a sleek, no-nonsense quality about it, with a liberal salting of weary laconism. It’s the sort of prose one wants to hear from the mouths of people wearing trenchcoats and hats on a rainy night.

There is a series of books with George Smiley as the principal character, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first entry in the so-called Karla Trilogy (named for the mole’s Soviet spy-master). I enjoyed this book enough that I think I’ll read the others too.

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