Spies, Betrayal, and Loyalty: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


tinker-tailorIn the interest of forthrightness, I have to admit that I saw the 2011 BBC adaptation of John le Carré`s Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy before I read the novel. Of course, I watched the film last year so I had forgotten large parts of the plot by the time I started reading this book. Tinker, Tailor (as I`ll call it from now on) is a great novel. It is part mystery novel, part spy thriller, and a dash of detective fiction all mixed in. There has been a scandal at Cambridge Circus, Britain’s secret service agency in le Carré`s novel. Jim Prideaux was shot twice in the back in Soviet Czechoslovakia, Control, the former head of the agency, has died, and George Smiley has been put out to pasture by the new regime. Smiley is called back into service by a minister, a distant cousin of his wife’s, and a former colleague, Lacon. Everything happens in media res as Smiley interrogates a repatriated spy who may have connections to a potential Russian defector.


What makes this novel great, at least in my mind, is the way le Carré draws readers along into ever deepening pools of mystery. It’s as if we are entering a cave and things keep getting darker the farther along we go, until in the closing chapters, le Carré shows us the light in Smiley’s careful thinking. I have not necessarily been sold on the mystery/crime fiction genre so far, but this book was a real page-turner. I spent most of yesterday reading a good two thirds of this book because I just could not put it down. Part of the thrill is the careful peeling away of layers of deception that le Carré performs. The truth is not what it seems in this novel even if by the end you have a pretty clear sense of who the bad guys are and what they did.


I felt like this novel was also about the decline of British Empire. Part of this might be an over-eagerness on my part as an academic to read national narratives onto literature, but I do think there is some merit to this. At the heart of the action is a regime change in the Circus. The old ways are no longer possible and young professionals are chomping at the bit to push Control over the edge. The high-level mole uses this tension to get himself into a position of high authority while continuing to transmit secrets to Russia. There are numerous sections throughout where characters rue the loss of Britain’s authority and one of the mole’s main priorities is being in an advantageous position to manipulate and gain American intelligence of Russia. Le Carré was a member of MI5 and MI6 before he began writing espionage novels full time after his first few had done quite well. And this background comes through in the kind of detailed texture that Thinker, Tailor weaves together.


This is a big novel, full of intrigue, specific details, and intricate action. In a way, I felt like watching the movie had helped make some of these contexts more understandable for myself (being a Canadian and not British by any means). I would say, as I usually do, that the novel is better than the film adaptation because I had a much greater sense of closure at the end of the narrative. At the same time, this is a big, dense book, and for readers who can be put off by size or density, this might not be for them.


I would recommend this book to readers of detective/crime fiction and those who love all things Britain.


le Carré, John. Thinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Print.


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