Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré book cover
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) is a grimly realistic spy thriller, which portrays the world of espionage in a dower, conflicted light. Retired spy, George Smiley, is called out of retirement to help root out a Soviet mole who has infiltrated the British secret service and betrayed many of its top agents. There are five suspects and Smiley is called upon to “spy upon the spies” as it were, unpicking the tangled web of deceit. The pursuit is far from frenetic, with long interviews and the careful scanning of paperwork driving the plot, rather than the standard thriller-fare of explosions, shoot-outs, and heart-stopping action. Le Carré, himself a former member of MI6, draws on his own experiences of the spy game, in particular the famous defection of Kim Philby, who exposed Le Carré's identity to the Russians, to create a sharply-observed, realistic spy story. Indeed, Smiley is a most unlikely hero; unable to control his adulterous wife, he is retiring, compassionate, contemplative, but quietly brilliant and possessed of an iron will.

Through the prism of the secret service, the novel explores Britain's diminishing role in the world, told from the perspective of those charged with protecting its interests. As the Empire sinks into terminal decline, England is still populated with the relics of a ruling class “trained to rule, but with nothing to run”, and the belief that the ideals of English society, of the Empire, could be maintained by the privileged elite is utterly dispelled. The novel perfectly captures the atmosphere of Britain's post-war decline, the shadow cast over a great nation as the curtain falls on its finest hour, and its struggle to accept the new order of things.

The paranoia that permeated society during the Cold war is acutely drawn, and the fragile moral condition of individuals charged with protecting the nation's ideals in the time of conflict is pulled delicately apart; ethical ambivalence pervading the ethos of the secret servive, with petty politicking and one-ups-manship rife. There is a sense that no one can be trusted, and betrayal runs strong throughout the novel; the mole's betrayal of the state and the agents whose lives he offers up to the Soviets, the recurring adultery of Smiley's wife, and the betrayal of the ideal of Britishness, so corrupted by those in power.

The complexity of the story – the number of characters, code names, operations, and relationships – calls for one's keen attention, without which one can easily become lost in the tangled plot. Le Carré's writing, whilst excellent, is intelligent and demanding, and doesn't ease the situation. The characters are all beautifully crafted and, whilst retaining a very human mundanity, all display the subtle indicators of brilliance in their field, or of the vice that has brought them to their current situation. This is not action-packed thriller; there are no suave agents, seductive females, or explosive set-pieces, this real-life in all its obdurate dreariness.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a rich, understated look at the world of the spy in the cold war era, but more than that it is an illustration of a nation’s grim awakening as they come to accept their decline and admit that their finest hour has passed. George Smiley bears witness to this change through the prism of the secret service, a perfect metaphor for the nation as a whole. Despite the book’s bleak reflections on life, there is a sense, at the conclusion, that the good still receive due reward, that the world is intrinsically a fair place – perhaps an ironic look back to the idealism of the empire.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this book overall. The plot is clever, the characters are incredibly rich, and yet I found I lost track of the overarching plot and just enjoyed each scene on its own merits.

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