At the opening of the novel, George Smiley has been retired (forcibly) from MI6 (called the Circus in le Carré's world) for about a year. His boss, Control, trying to prove that there was a mole in the Circus, had sent Jim Prideaux on a mission to Czechoslovakia. That operation, named Testify, went terribly bad, Prideaux was captured and interrogated, and many agents he had put in place were exposed. Control and Smiley were sacked from the Circus, and the group of four men that Control did not trust are now in power. Ricki Tarr turns up with information that indicates that Control was right and there is a mole.
From that point on, the story alternates between segments which relate events leading up to Prideaux's botched mission and long conversations with various agents gathering information needed to determine who is the mole.
The title refers to a nursery rhyme that supplied code names for the men who are under suspicion of being a mole. Percy Alleline, Control’s successor as Chief of the Circus, is "Tinker." Bill Haydon is "Tailor." Roy Bland is “Soldier,” Toby Esterhase is “Poorman.”
Leading up to this book, I had read all of the Smiley novels that preceded it. Each features George Smiley to some extent. All of them were well-written, entertaining books, although some were grittier and darker than others. I was really looking forward to reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It did not disappoint.
The story is about more than the espionage community; it explores themes like betrayal and loss of love. Espionage novels are often about relationships and not knowing who you can trust. Even thought it moves slowly, I was totally immersed in the story and enjoyed every minute.
There are so many great characters: Smiley, Jim Prideaux, Peter Guillam, Ricki Tarr, Connie Sachs. One of my favorite elements of the story is the relationship that develops between Jim Prideaux, now working for a boarding school, and a student at the school. Another excellent section features Connie Sachs, a very competent researcher at the Circus who was edged out because she got too close to discovering information that could expose the mole.
A lot of the book is one-on-one conversations between Smiley and his sources of information. The story is heavily dependent on dialog, which I usually dislike. But le Carré handles it very well and it worked for me. The conversation with Toby Esterhase, as Smiley gets closer to uncovering the mole, is especially masterful.
For the best experience of the Smiley books, I would recommend reading the books leading up to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy first. However, many readers have started with this one or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and been perfectly happy. The books (up to this point) are not really a cohesive series, but they build on each other. This book and The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People make up the Karla trilogy, where Smiley is on a quest to uncover Karla, the Russian agent who was running the mole.
The book has been adapted as a BBC mini-series (1979) and as a film (2011). After finishing the book, I first viewed the mini-series. We had watched it at least two times previously, once when it aired on the television in the US, and later on DVD. The previous viewings were so long ago that I didn't remember much about it, except that Alec Guinness was amazing. It was enjoyable, although I don't know how a viewer who had not read the book would be able to follow it. Then we watched the film version from 2011 with Gary Oldman as Smiley. That one I did not go for so much. I will follow up in a later post with more comments on the adaptations.
List of 'Smiley' Novels (with links to my reviews)
1. Call for the Dead (1961)
2. A Murder of Quality (1962)
3. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
4. The Looking Glass War (1965)
5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
6. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
7. Smiley's People (1979)
8. The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
- See this post at Existential Ennui, which also talks about the mini-series.
- At the author's website, excerpts from a Salon.com article. It refers to the 2011 film but is at least as useful for reading the book.
Publisher: Pocket Books, 2000. (Orig. pub. 1974)
Length: 418 pages
Series: Karla Trilogy, #1
Genre: Espionage fiction
Source: Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2007.