Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre

I read on Wikipedia that John LeCarre actually was a spy for the British espionage unit M-16, and that his cover was blown and his career ended by double agent Kim Philby. Gerald, the Soviet double agent in the book, is to some extent a portrait of Kim Philby, and the protagonist George Smiley is “modelled on former Lincoln (College) rector Vivian H. H. Green.”

So the novel has some basis in fact and history. I thought it was a good book, but I did have some trouble following the plot. Between the British slang and the dated slang (published in 1974) and, most of all, the spy-talk, I was lost a good deal of the time. Then, too, I have the unfortunate habit of skimming over sections whenever I lose the thread of the story looking for a place to pick it up again. I often do this skimming unconsciously, and I sometimes skip right over the thread I needed to find.

So I may have missed a few details, but I got the gist of the story. George Smiley is an unwillingly retired M-16 agent who’s called back in to deal with a possible Soviet double agent entrenched in the highest echelons of M-16. The novel tells about how Smiley goes about finding the double agent, and it also deals with the lack of trust fostered by an environment whose stock in trade is betrayal. In Smiley/LeCarre’s M-16, no one fully trusts anyone, with good cause. I didn’t understand how Smiley knew exactly who to interview in order to figure who the Soviet “mole” was, but I suppose it was buried somewhere in the jargon.

So it’s a spy novel with a theme, trust and the lack of trust, and betrayal in politics and in realtionships. (Smiley’s wife, by the way, is cheating on him and has been for quite some time, a fact that is not without significance in the world of LeCarre’s spy story.) I read that there are two more novels by Le Carre featuring the retired spymaster, George Smiley. I probably won’t look for them anytime soon, but if you’re interested in a spy novel with a little more depth than James Bond, you might take a look at Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Then ‘splain the nuances to me.

3 thoughts on “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre

  1. At A Hen's Pace

    Hi Sherry! I just wanted to add that I agree with you about the jargon making it hard to understand. I listened to it on tape (many years ago, back in my commuting days) and wondered if I was missing out on annotations at the bottom of the page or something. But I did end up listening to everything my library had by him, and I figured out some of the jargon eventually. I do think he’s a good writer.

    The best Le Carre novel, though, is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It’s shorter and tighter than any of his other books. I re-listened to it once, years later, just to see if it was as good as I remembered it being–and it was. The Wikipedia article on the book quotes Graham Greene as saying, “It is the best spy story I have ever read.” So–add that one to The List!


  2. ComSoop

    Years ago, all the Smiley books were reissued simultaneously in paperback and I happened on a newsstand that had them all. There are five in which he’s the central character and a few others he figures in from one degree to another. It’s probably the best way to learn and appreciate the character. One note – the department Smiley works for is not M-16, but MI6, shorthand for the Secret Intelligence Service, Britain’s external intelligence agency comparable to the CIA.

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