John Le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker Tailor Solider SpyTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
John Le Carré
First published in the UK 1974, Hodder & Stoughton
This edition: Sceptre, 2011
ISBN: 9781444728170
422 pages
Score 4/5

Back in December The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was my pick of the month, so I quickly returned to Le Carré’s shadowy Cold War world of lamplighters, scalphunters, and moles. Tinker, Tailor is the first in a trilogy of novels describing the conflict between British spymaster George Smiley and his arch-enemy, Moscow Central’s Karla.

However, when we first meet Le Carré’s tubby agent George Smiley, we find him retired and bored, abandoned by his wife, and regretting his:

‘inability to live a self-sufficient life independent of institutions and emotional attachments which have long outlived their purpose. Viz my wife, viz the Circus, viz living in London.’

There has been a revolution at Smiley’s former intelligence department: ‘the Circus’. The old guard is out. Smiley’s long-time boss Control is dead, replaced by the ungentlemanly and ambitious Percy Alleline, who has reorganised the department to centralise power in London. The Circus is being fed reliable intelligence with such great regularity that its local networks are being allowed to crumble whilst the organisation focuses on a single, very closely-protected source.

But this is too good to be true. Ricki Tarr, a volatile field agent who has been AWOL for six months in the far east, brings back news that raises the spectre of a mole at Circus’s ‘top table’. Smiley is brought back out of retirement to investigate.

He begins a journey through the Circus’s past, following a trail of paperwork and witness interviews to uncover the traitor.

There’s a sense that the glory days of British intelligence are over. The heroes of World War Two have been put out to pasture to allow in fresh blood. Only one remains: the latter-day ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ Bill Haydon.

‘Haydon was of that unrepeatable, fading Circus generation [which] still, thirty years later, gave the Circus its dying flavour of adventure.’

Smiley isn’t misty-eyed about the past like many of his erstwhile colleagues, but he is saddened by the failings of his generation.

There are some brilliant character sketches, the best being the large and flamboyantly intelligent Connie Sachs, lost in her forced retirement, missing ‘her’ Circus, a little drunk, but still able to remember details of past plots and counter-plots with incredible accuracy.

Her brothers were dons, Smiley remembered; her father was a professor of something. Control had met her at bridge and invented a job for her.

Some of the more interesting sections concern Bill Roach, ‘a fat round child with asthma’ at a minor boarding school who develops a crush on Jim Prideaux, a supply teacher who arrives at the school with a caravan and an air of glamour.

That same term, Jim invented a nickname for Roach. He dropped Bill and called him Jumbo instead. He gave no reason for this and Roach, as is common in the case of christenings, was in no position to object. In return, Roach appointed himself Jim’s guardian; a regent-guardian was how he thought of the appointment; a stand-in replacing Jim’s departed friend, whoever that friend might be.

Jim, of course, is a supply teacher with a dangerous secret, and Bill struggles to protect him. The emotional life of this lonely child of divorced parents is wonderfully described. These parts of the book alone would make a great novella.

And having that thought raised a question for me: Is Tinker, Tailor too long? Frankly, I feel a bit cheeky writing this, but it does feel a little self-indulgent at times. The prose is stylish and rich, but you can have too much of a good thing.

Here’s an example. The interrogation of Ricki Tarr takes 40 pages. They are an enjoyable 40 pages, but his story could have been presented in fewer words. It seems to have been stretched out purely to showcase tradecraft in action.

Also, I eventually began to question the importance of Smiley’s work. I read somewhere once that most official secrets aren’t worth keeping, and in the world of Tinker, Tailor they are most often treated as a form of currency between intelligence organisations. The quality of intelligence – and the state’s ability to act upon it – is so compromised by the possibility of bluff and double-bluff that it begins to seem a lot of fuss over nothing. What would happen if all the spies just went home?

Despite all that, Tinker, Tailor is still a fantastic book and a recommended read.

So will I go on to The Honourable Schoolboy, the second in this trilogy? It looks like the makers of the recent Tinker, Tailor movie are going to give it a miss, but I think I will read it.

Final destination: Back to the library

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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9 Responses to John Le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

  1. Pingback: Pick of the month: February 2013 | Past Offences

  2. Rich – I’m glad you thought Tinker, Tailor… was a good read. I think le Carré’s work is some of the best spy thriller work out there. I know other people may feel differently but I think this is a classic.

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  3. Moira says:

    I agree with your criticisms, but still love this book, so very atmospheric and so very redolent of its era. Even though I know how it ends I still get the tension when I re-read! I wouldn’t bother with Honourable Schoolboy though – a sad disappointment after this one. Straight on to Smiley’s People!

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  4. Nigel says:

    I concur with the 2nd comment, if you think Tinker, Tailor, Yadda-yadda is too long, then you should steer clear of The Honourable Schoolboy and head straight to the final book in the trilogy.

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  5. I like this book a lot, but also felt it was a bit too long (Julian Symons called it funereal in its pace and I think he’s right) and tend to prefer CALL FOR THE DEAD and SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD though I am a very big fan of some fo his more recent books like RUSSIA HOUSE and constant gardner which are among his greatest achievements it seems to be – great review Rich.

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  6. I found The Honourable Schoolboy more difficult than the other Smiley books but I think it’s still well worth reading, and in the right order. It’s a great book.

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  7. Skywatcher says:

    Le Carre is definitely one of those authors who suffer from book bloat (is this the point where your editor is no longer able to insist that you cut stuff?) His later work is unreadable as far as I am concerned, but his early stuff still stands up pretty well. TTSS is about the right length for me, but the HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY looks terrifying lengthy (I am re-reading the trilogy without missing out that book, which is what I did originally).

    As regards spying…well, it’s pretty important nowadays in preventing terrorists attacks. There’s a good argument that spying was at least partly responsible for helping to prevent WWIII. The passage of info between east and west helped prevent international tensions build up to dangerous levels. But, who knows…..?

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  8. Pingback: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [VHS] | WWW.DBESTREVIEW.COM

  9. Lois says:

    It is my all time favourite book, an I’ve no idea how often I’ve read it! Great review, and I do recommend The Honourable Schoolboy. ( I hated the recent film, I thought it was dull and so obvious who the double agent was!)

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