Pros: Stick through it til the end, and you will be amply rewarded.
Cons: The pacing and the jargon. This one really needed a glossary.
For years I had been eyeing the works of John Le Carre's novels of spycraft and yet I never seemed to make room to actually get them read. This time, with the remake of the television series from the BBC. That one had starred Alec Guinness as George Smiley, and considered to be a classic, but I wanted to read the source material before I watched any of the film versions.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was originally published in 1971 and was followed by two other novels, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People. The time is the 1960's, the heyday of the Cold War between the West and the Soviets, played with spies and secret messages. But unlike ordinary games, here the stakes are very deadly, and if a mistake is made, lives usually are ended as a result.
In a remote public (what Americans would call private) school, a new teacher of French has arrived, but there is quite a mystery about him. He's rough and tumble, with enough command to control the schoolboys. One of the younger ones, known as Jumbo by his classmates, and named Bill Roach, forms a bond with Jim Prideaux, and starts to find some much needed confidence.
In London, George Smiley, once a high ranking intelligence officer working in MI-6 -- the Circus -- has been forced into early retirement, and he is having a terrible time coping with it. His wife, the beautiful Lady Ann, has left him, and the death of the former head of the Circus, Control, is proving to be a difficult transistion for him. But that is about to change, for he is whisked away to debrief an agent recently returned to England.
And Ricki Tarr isn't that much of a sterling character himself, but the story he has to tell hints at that most dreaded sort of spy, a mole that has been placed by the Russians at the highest levels. And it is Smiley who is set to the task to find the real spy among four highest placed men in the Circus, all men with plenty of secrets and lies to hide...
I found this to be a rather convoluted, and to be honest, confusing novel to get through. But that doesn't mean that it's a bad novel. Far from it. George Smiley is as far from James Bond as you can get -- this is the serious and rather dull work of spycraft, where files need to be gone through to ferret out any secrets, and often hidden clues can stay obscured for decades. The plot itself is delicately peeled back layer by layer, and it is only in the last hundred or so pages does the pace pick up and the story take off. By this point I was hooked, and very much involved in the rich lives of these characters.
Smiley, as the person around whom all of the story turns, I found to be fascinating. He's someone that you wouldn't look at twice, late middle aged, greying and balding, eyes obscured behind thick, black rimmed glasses. Not very sauve, is he? But when it comes to the detailed task that he is set to, Smiley shines -- he's careful, he's precise and he is very thorough.
The secondary characters are just as well drawn. There's a young spy in training as it were, Peter Guilliam, who turns into Smiley's assistant and dog's-body, who fortunately learns very quickly. Bill Heydon, the new operator of the Circus, is well-educated, and more than a little smug, not to say detestable, while there's the rather fumbling Allilene who is also a suspect. Then there are the others who have fallen along with Smiley, especially Connie Sachs, who I liked from the start, easing into her forced retirement on a comfortable cushion of alcohol along with a mind that's still sharp despite the haze, and has a very amazing tale to tell herself.
And that's where this novel works. While the plot is very thick, and pacing very slow, it's the interplay and the sinking into a world where nothing is quite right, that has its own jargon and secrets. But it's also the jargon that threw me. Unfamiliar terms are sprinkled liberally throughout the text, and there's very little to place it all in context, so I had a hard time figuring out what was what, and what those blasted terms meant.
In 1991, Le Carre wrote an introduction to the novel, talking about the story, and how surprised he was at how popular it was. I found this to be fascinating reading and a good way to ease into the novel.
Overall, this gets four stars from me and a hearty thumbs up. And yes, I do intend to read the next two books in the Karla Trilogy.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
John le Carre
1974, 1991; Penguin Group (USA) Inc.