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.


Quick and Brutal: The Hunter

hunterWow, that was over fast. This was probably the fastest read book I’ve had so far. I think I may have started this morning. Richard Stark’s The Hunter is noir fiction with Parker the betrayed thief who lays a bloody trail of revenge out over the novel’s 190 pages. L, a colleague who writes on detective fiction, has helped me to make some sense of the various genres of detective/crime fiction and after reading this I can see the importance of these tags. Parker pulls heist or bankroll job once or twice a year to fund his resort hotel lifestyle, but he is betrayed by his wife and a sleazy disgraced gangster, Mal. The plot centres on Parker’s attempt to have his revenge on Mal, but in doing so it also shines a light on New York in what I can only guess is the 1930s. There is an element of stylized description and setting in this book, and I would be amiss not to mention that I have also read Darwyn Cooke’s graphic adaptations of Stark’s series. They are excellent and well-worth a glance if you are interested in graphic novels.

As to The Hunter, I am not sure how I feel about it. Quick and brutal sums up my feelings of the narrative arc of the novel. There is plenty of violence along with the seedier aspects of organized crime. However, I would not say that the novel revels in the violence or the crime. What surprised me was how the novel asks readers to sympathize with the wronged Parker, in part, condoning his quest for a bloody revenge. Parker is a hard man whose ego drives him to “right” the “wrong” done to him. There’s something sexy with Stark’s writing (I should say that Stark is a pseudonym for Donald Westlake). I wanted to root for Parker, but something held me back. Call it a sense that literature should call its readers to higher purposes. This is not to say that all books must be moral, in fact many books shed a light on morals precisely by not being moral, but I found nothing redemptive about this book. I just did not enjoy the misogyny or the casual violence of The Hunter.

This is not to say that Stark’s book is not well-written. It is. It’s just that the subject matter does not interest me in any sustained manner. I never liked The Sopranos, so I am going to go out on a limb and guess that noir fiction is not for me. However, the variety in the selection of detective/noir fiction will hopefully help keep this group from getting stale.

I would not recommend this book to most readers. I suppose if I knew you liked noir fiction, I would recommend it but I don’t really know many who like crime/detective novels to being with.

Stark, Richard. The Hunter. 1962. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.

PS – The image I found for the cover is from the original run of the book. It looks pretty amazing. I feel like current trends in book covers just do not match the allure of previous generations.