Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: John le Carré

I have nothing but good things to say about this book. I would put Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy among the best novels I have ever read. I just hope I can explain why I like it so much.

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)

Other resources:


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Publisher:   Pocket Books, 2000. (Orig. pub. 1974)
Length:      418 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Karla Trilogy, #1
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Espionage fiction
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2007.


26 comments:

  1. I'd heartily agree, Tracy: it's among the best novels I've ever read too. And thank you for the link!

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    1. I have enjoyed and admired every one of his books that I have read, Nick, but Tinker, Tailor is the favorite so far. I think I would like all of them better on the 2nd read. In your post, I especially enjoyed your comments on the mini-series.

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  2. Tracy, congratulations on reading all the eight George Smilley novels. I'm going to have to read one of these soon.

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    1. I am currently reading The Honourable Schoolboy, Prashant, and it is slow going because it is so long and I have had lots of other stuff to do besides reading. But is so good, I enjoy it whenever I get back to it. They are all good in different ways.

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  3. My very favorite example of the genre.

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    1. I was thinking that too, Patti, except that I love Len Deighton and the Bernard Samson series, and the Game, Set and Match trilogy are favorites too. So I guess I rate them about the same, except that they are very different.

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  4. What a great review! And you've motivated me to revisit LeCarre's novels; my favorite is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I wonder, though, who writes espionage novels of similar quality? Anyone? Perhaps you, TracyK, or your many blog followers will have some ideas. I cannot think of any writers who match up to LeCarre, but my reading range is admittedly limited. So, what do you think?
    All the best from the Gulf coast and Past Perfect Murders,
    Tim
    http://pastperfectmurders.blogspot.com/

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    1. Thanks, Tim. My other favorite authors of espionage novels are Charles McCarry, Len Deighton, and Robert Littell. How well they compare to le Carre is a personal opinion, but I like them all.

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  5. It is a fantastic book, Tracy. It's layered, nuanced, full of solid character development, and rich. And yet it's a thriller, with plenty of action. That takes talent.

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    1. I did enjoy it so much, Margot, and was very glad I finally read it.

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  6. It was the Gary Oldman movie that prompted me to read the book. I enjoyed both immensely. I will have to check to see if I can stream the BBC mini series.

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    1. Susanne, I could not decide if I would have liked the movie better if I had not read the book recently, or not. My husband really liked the look of it and Gary Oldman is wonderful. And some other great actors in it. Sometimes I like movies on the second viewing, so I will probably give it another try later.

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  7. Glad this went down so well - it is certainly the best, for me, of the later Smiley books and the post-philly, 1970s disillusionment really suits le Carre's worldview - but I agree, it all makes a lot more sense of you've read CALL FOR THE DEAD especially as it lays out so much about Smiley's relationship with his wife for instance.

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    1. Sergio, Call for the Dead is one that I have read twice and enjoyed at least as much if not more on a reread. I will be sad when I am done with the Smiley books.

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  8. I have all of those books in my house as Jack bought them when they first came out in paperback. It looks like I should be reading them too.

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    1. Katrina, if you already have them around, they are definitely worth a try. May not be your cup of tea, but you can always stop reading if you don't like them.

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  9. Oddly, I abandoned this one after getting only partway through. Not sure what went wrong. Maybe because I'd just seen the movie, and was expecting a faster-paced narrative. Silly me. I should know better, especially from a writer whose work I've always enjoyed (altho am nowhere near completing the canon.) Maybe enuf time has passed since the movie-fueled expectations, and with your insightful and enthusiastic review, that I can revisit with a fresh outlook.

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    1. The movie does have a different pace than the book or the BBC mini-series, Mathew. I liked the slow pace of the novel, but I think a movie works better with faster pacing. Especially with today's audiences.

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  10. You're certainly giving me a big nudge to pick up his books again. (Read the first and never got back to him!) Glad its working out well for you.

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    1. I did the same thing, Col, read the first one and then stopped. Rereading it recently, I liked it a lot, so I don't know what stopped me. I am very, very glad I got into reading le Carre's books now. Unfortunately they get longer as I move along.

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  11. Maybe I'll take the second Smiley on holiday with me!

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    1. Good idea, Col, it is fast and easy, but really much closer to a police procedural, so don't judge later books by that one.

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  12. It IS a great book, and I very much liked both adaptations. Rewatched the BBC series recently, and it was SO tense, despite the fact that I knew exactly what was going to happen...

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    1. Moira, I should have waited longer to watch the movie with Gary Oldman, I think. I disliked the way they handled the Jim Prideaux parts of the movie but I am not always so picky about adaptations.

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  13. Your posts on John le Carré have triggerd me to read him again. I just started 'A Delicate Truth' (2011) and it is wonderful. I enjoy reading about a character and imaging my favorite British actors in the role. Pick Jeremy Irons for the main character for this one! Tx for the post and nudge to read a spy thriller!

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    1. I am glad you are enjoying A Delicate Truth, Nancy, that is another one I want to read someday. Right now I am reading A Perfect Spy from 1986 and it is very engrossing.

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