Wednesday, 15 November 2000
John le Carré: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)
Review number: 684
There are a huge number of spy stories with the basic theme of the investigation of the possibility of a traitor, a mole, in a secret service. After the Maclean/Philby scandals of the fifties, it was probably a subject which automatically suggested itself to writers who wrote about the various British secret organisations. It is perhaps an odd subject for a thriller, because it must involve a large amount of bookish research and less action than many writers would desire - it could never have been the sort of thing James Bond would tackle. However, it is a theme which lends itself to a more literary style of spy story, full of complications, byzantine plots and constant reassessments, and these novels provide a very different kind of pleasure to those who enjoy that sort of thing.
Of all these books, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the greatest. George Smiley has been forced into retirement after a disastrous operation organised by Control, head of the Circus (as the intelligence service of le Carré's novels is known), and Smiley is implicated in the disaster as Control's right hand man, despite his innocence. When a spy labelled a defector returns from abroad with accusations that one of the top men now running the Circus is a mole, Smiley is asked to return to work, to attempt to unmask him. Whoever it is, they are closely concerned with the Circus' star Russian source, codenamed Merlin. The intelligence provided by Merlin is basically the necessary cost incurred by the Russians to enhance the reputation and potential for damage of their mole.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is cleverly written, with enough action to maintain the interest combined with the intellectual puzzle tackled by Smiley. This puzzle is similar to that of a murder mystery, and the first stories featuring Smiley were in fact crime novels in which he was the detective. Le Carré allows himself the space to introduce a cast of contrasting characters, who are three dimensional though they are not allowed to develop. The novel has a believable background, and is a touch less depressing than some of the really downbeat novels which le Carré had written just a few years earlier. As well as being a masterpiece of the spy genre, it is probably also le Carré's best novel.