John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of his two best-known novels, and even placed at #74 on the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time, a ranking I have to say I find rather dubious even though I thought it was an excellent read and a smart, realistic antidote to the standard spy novel featuring a dashing hero who’s always in great peril when he’s not in bed with a gorgeous double agent.
The protagonist at the heart of TTSS couldn’t be further from the James Bond mold, as George Smiley begins the novel in disgrace both at work, where he’s been forced out after a putsch, and at home, where his wife Ann has left him after years of infidelity. When a former agent, presumed defected, resurfaces with a story of a Soviet mole in The Circus (the top tier of what was then known as MI-6), Smiley and a few other folks on the outs at the Circus begin an effort to root out the mole, who appears to have been intimately involved in the palace coup that also resulted in a British agent getting arrested and shot in Brno and in several networks in Eastern Europe blowing up.
The brilliance of TTSS is that the novel is gripping with very little action, and no action in the novel’s present day until the final sequence where Smiley and his group set a trap for the mole. Apprised of the possible existence of the mole – the source for that info is dodgy at best – Smiley sets to work like an old-school detective, unraveling the story by talking to others ousted in the putsch and going after documents related to the compromised operation in Czechoslovakia as well as the Soviet leak who may in fact have been handling the double agent at the Circus. Le Carré carries it off through an intense dedication to realistic dialogue and actions – if there was a false note it fell below my detection threshold – and with flourishes of clever writing:
“Pulling the rug out when we’re all but home and dry.” His circulars read that way, too, thought Guillam. Metaphors chasing each other off the page.
He interlaces personal and professional issues for several of his characters, including Smiley and Peter Guillam, Smiley’s main accomplice in the investigation, the emotional counterpoint to the ironically-named Smiley’s stoicism, yet the book never drags as so many pensive novels do, where the characters’ inner thoughts overwhelm the story at the novel’s heart. There is no question that Smiley and company are detectives solving a mystery and that we are ultimately headed for some sort of denouement – a capture, a confrontation, an attack, whatever, you know that you’re driving towards a finish line, and even those asides into the minds of Smiley or Guillam or another character are just fuel for the engine that’s taking us there.
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which Le Carré wrote before TTSS, relies on more traditional sources of tension, with the spy of the book’s title finding himself behind enemy lines and eventually in some jeopardy, although it is still relatively light on action. It’s a better place to start than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but if you’ve read and enjoyed it I’d recommend coming here next.
One thing that struck me while reading TTSS: Out of the seven main characters, three bear the names George, Percy, and Bill. And on the penultimate page of the book is the line: He wished he had brought her fur boots from the cupboard under the stairs. Anyone else think J.K. Rowling read a little Le Carré when she wasn’t reading Anthony Powell?
Next up: Something current, The Dolphin People by the author writing under the pseudonym Torsten Krol.