Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) by John le Carre

I’m working my way through John le Carré’s George Smiley spy novels, which actually include a traditional detective story “A Murder of Quality”, and whilst not a classic mystery, along with a number of other thrillers, this title made the Crime Writers’ Association Top 100 books list in 1990 so I feel justified in giving it a full review on this blog.

Control, the head of the Circus (MI6), was sacked follow a botched operation in Czechoslovakia, and George Smiley, his loyal number two, was forced out at the same time.

Then a vanished agent reappears in England with a tale of a mole, codenamed Gerald, who is at the heart of the Circus and Smiley is brought back from retirement to “Clean the stables, go backwards, go forwards, do whatever is necessary” to identify the traitor.

Guillam, Smiley, and Lacon hear Ricky Tarr’s story about the mole

He takes up the assignment and with the aid of a few old friends travels down a road that he finds someone has already been down but hopefully he will meet with more success.

Poor Man, Tailor, Tinker, and Soldier

The reader is taken into a covert world of lamplighters, scalphunters, and tradecraft, where no one can fully trust anybody else. There is a fantastic scene which describes in detail Peter Guillam’s efforts to steal a top-secret file from his own side and all the precautions he has taken to cover every eventuality and even then it is fraught with risk.

It is a superb book, with a plot as labyrinthine and carefully put together as anything by Freeman Wills Crofts, and has a wonderful symmetry. It is crucial to read it before any of the subsequent books, as the true identity of Gerald is mentioned in almost all of them.

Re-reading it I realised that I’d probably only read it once before and yet because of having watched the 1979 BBC TV series so many times, great chunks of dialogue were immediately familiar and I could hear it in my head in the voices of the actors who had played them.

Smiley was played by Alec Guinness, that most versatile of actors whose roles included the lovable bank robber Mr Holland in “The Lavender Hill Mob” and the sinister Professor Marcus in “The Lady Killers” (both Ealing Comedies) to his Oscar winning performance as the obsessed Colonel Nicholson in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. The rest of the cast is a Who’s Who of British acting talent and in including Beryl Reid and Alec Sabin links nicely into my favourite Doctor Who story “Earthshock”.

I watched it  first with my family having got it on VHS for Christmas and proved that I really do read to fast by claiming that a key scene at the end never happened in the book, only to find when checking that it had happed exactly as shown. Something about it really got into me and I had the phrase “There are three of them and Alleline” as my phone’s wake up screen and when I found that my now-wife’s home village was the next one to Sarratt, home of the Circus’ training school and debriefing centre, I was strangely thrilled.

The closing title’s feature Geoffrey Burgon’s sublime Nunc Dimittis.

The 2011 film is solid but I would only watch it after reading the book or watching the TV series as it telescopes the plot significantly and may be confusing as a result. It ends with this terrific but spoilerific montage set to “La Mer” by Julio Iglesias.

The full CWA list can be found here on the Past Offences blog where each title has been reviewed.

3 thoughts on “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) by John le Carre”

  1. I have not read the book. I think we agree that the six (?) hour TV version featuring Alec Guinness is a masterpiece, whereas the more recent movie featuring Gary Oldman does not reach the same height. I think your label of merely “solid” for the latter is earned not only because of the selective compression to only two hours or so, but also because of the comparison to the outstanding TV version.

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      1. Yes, I have. I think I liked it even more, because the “taking care of (lost) family” angle gives it a stronger emotional pull, at least for me. And that final sequence with Karla (played by cerebral-but-tough Jean-Luc Picard, er, I mean Patrick Stewart) crossing the bridge and not uttering a single word is a very strong ending.

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