‘The Circus has already suffered a bad defeat, and the result was two bullets in a man’s back. But a bigger threat still exists. And the legendary George Smiley is recruited to root out a high-level mole of thirty years’ standing- though to find him means spying on the spies.’
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will always be a special book to me, for a number of reasons. It was the first book I ever read by John le Carre and was the one that made me fall in love with his style of storytelling. It was also the first real spy story I came into contact with outside of the James Bond films and it really inspired a great interest and respect of the thriller genre that I didn’t have before. My family have always loved a good detective or spy thriller but for me it was always reserved for TV, it wasn’t until reading this book that I came into contact with just how incredible this genre was on paper.
The story follows George Smiley, an English spy during the cold war era, who is asked to quietly investigate the possibility that there is a Russian spy at the heart of British intelligence. One of the things I love most about this book is how accessible it is despite the complexities of the plot. You feel yourself carried along with Smiley’s investigation, following his logic and moving with him as he gathers evidence against the mole. You never feel left behind or like you’re too in over your head and you’ve lost where you are which is an especially impressive feat because le Carre also manages to keep you guessing right through to the end.
His great genius really comes through in his characters though. With such a strong supporting cast, all who bring a piece of the puzzle to the party it feels rich in depth, incredibly layered and therefore realistic. You can really see these men scurrying around their offices running operations and living these complex, hidden lives. The book deals with characters who are far more interesting than your average good guy and villain, there are so many shades of grey which help to cloak the true identity of the spy in shadow while drawing you ever inward into the drama of the world le Carre has conjured. My personal favourites were Prideaux and Guillam who showed a straightforward authenticity that one likes to attribute to stereotypical British spies that for me kept the genre and spirit of the book alive.
Another great strength of the novel is le Carre’s ability to immerse you so fully in the world that nothing seems like fiction. There is no course of action or scene that dispels the belief that you are reading about events that could really have happened. There is no character so shallow or wooden that you find yourself sinking out the story. Everything feels real and exciting and it creates a feeling of impatient interest. I could barely put the book down, despite the fact I’ve read it before, because I was so invested in following Smiley’s path right to the spy’s door.
It’s an incredible read and one that never fails to capture my attention. For me it is one of the greatest examples of the spy thriller genre and will remain one of le Carre’s best works and a phenomenal testament to his skill. It’s the sort of book that is so good it makes you want to read everything else the author has ever written- a sentiment that has only ever been inspired in me by great writers like Stephen King and Roald Dahl, which is really one of the best compliments I can give. I really loved it and I would heartily recommend it to anyone wishing to dip their toe into the genre. You won’t regret it.
The 2011 film version directed by Tomas Alfredson is also incredible and well worth a watch.