“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” by John LeCarre – not just a spy novel

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre is a modern literary classic. It is often defined by its genre and called a spy novel or a thriller but I think that’s too limiting a description and might mean that some people who would enjoy it don’t read it. The writing in this book is subtle and clever and the whole tone is one of sadness and betrayal.

The book, which I first read in my teens and have reread frequently since, features George Smiley, a character who appears in a number of the author’s books. Smiley is a failed academic who has ended up in the spying world and is growing old there. He has a broken marriage and is disillusioned with a lot of life. The head of this particular branch of the spying world, the Circus, is called Control and he is an old man who is dying – he is also a man who realises that somewhere in the Circus there is a betrayal happening – this book is set at the height of the Cold War so secrets are being sent to Russia. He tasks Smiley with discovering who the traitor is and each one is given a code name based on the children’s rhyme.

The book is complex and has a number of narrative strands which weave together into the story. No detail is superfluous and everything is important. The pace is slow but remorseless and when you are finally told who the traitor is you realise that you’ve known it all along. For it to seem inevitable is excellent storytelling. The tone of the whole book is sad and disillusioned.

This is a spy story but that is only the vehicle for the author to write about loss, trust, betrayal, loyalty, friendship, disillusionment and the complexities of people. Every character is flawed and together they are obviously ineffective, especially in comparison with the Russians. Smiley is always on the outside but is actually amazingly ruthless when necessary as well as occasionally kind and tender.

After I had first read this book the BBC adapted it as a serial with Alec Guinness as Smiley. I have never been able to think of him in any way. I recently rewatched the series and actually found it very slow and was amazed at how often characters smoked. I have also seen the film starring Gary Oldman who I think plays Smiley well but I found that I was unable to work out what was happening in the film despite having read the book many times !

This book is an excellent introduction to LeCarre if you haven’t read him before. The events of this story trigger the events in The Honourable Schoolboy (a book I may like more than Tinker, Tailor) and Smiley’s People where they come to a conclusion. There are a number of other books featuring Smiley which are also worth reading but I would start with these three. If you like good quality writing then I think you’ll appreciate them and after you have finished with Smiley the author has a lot of other books to tempt you with  – I particularly recommend The Perfect Spy and Little Drummer Girl.