Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) is a brilliant work of Cold War espionage. George Smiley is called back in from forced retirement to investigate a mole in the British secret service, with no support or authorization from the service itself, but rather relying only on a handful of like-minded allies.

The almost detective novel-like mystery unfolds in interviews and information gathering, break-ins and leaks, and tense clandestine meetings that feel like they could explode into violence at any moment.

Throughout we see the toll that espionage work has taken on these people, the gray morals they’ve been forced to adopt, and the utter paranoia that grips their line of work mixed in with a nostalgia for the good old days of spying (WWII) and anger at how many of them have been forced out by regime change.

I’ve previously met/read Smiley in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and The Looking Glass War but in those books he’s the cold operator and here we see him sweat and live and breath and piece together the situation with his experience and acumen. The large cast of other characters, spies mostly, are fully realized and with games of their own to play – whether bureaucrats or rough-and-tumble gunmen.

In some ways Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the most traditional spy novel of Le Carré’s I’ve yet read. There are more guns (if rarely fired) and spies bedding women and outright suspense in addition to the cynical themes and elusiveness and minute details I’ve come to expect from his work. The character Ricki Tarr, a low-level spy who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, could potentially be read as a critique of Bond.

Le Carré does not hold the reader’s hands – he slips information towards us without beating us over the head with it, allows very important things to happen offscreen, and requires us to read the nuance between the characterizations and the very fine line-by-line prose. A masterpiece.

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