This is a great change in pace against normal spy books. There are no wiz bangs and gorgeous women. It just revolves around old fashioned atmosphere and storytelling.
We follow the expolits of George Smiley, one of the Cold War's heroes, as he is tasked with finding a Soviet mole imbedded within MI6. He was ousted in a shake-up following the overthrow, and demise, of the previous "Control" of MI6 - another name for James Bond's M.
He is outside the current regime that the mole is part of and his search is therefore reliant on old fashioned techniques of infiltarion and intelligence gathering.
I hadn't read this in about 20 years but was swept back into Smiley's world. Le Carre has a reputation for outstanding work and this is one of his best.
I won't give the game away as I hate plot spoilers. If you want to read an authentic Cold War spy story then this is for you.
on 18 September 2009
An excellent book which transcends the spy genre and dissects brilliantly the moral condition of human beings in the iciest days of the cold war: an atmosphere of ethical and political confusion/ambivalence, petty ambition and careless treachery pervades the whole work and provides a convincing backdrop for the examination of the nature of patriotism and the defence of a limited and faulty but ultimately worthy western liberalism.
And yet it is a book in which very little happens - it feels like a collection of dusty papers, assiduously compiled reports found in a filing cabinet in the corner of a room in Whitehall two decades after the fact... The ponderously procedural and bureaucratic nature of intelligence work, and the consequent difficulty of accessing "truth" are very well manipulated by LeCarre who develops the plot as a series of episodic vignettes, hazily recollected by some unseen witness.
The characters, their conversations and innermost thoughts, the themes and the all-too real denouement are utterly convincing, precisely because Le Carre is able to portray the mundane, humdrum nature of intelligence work and, above all, the plain, bitter-sweet patriotism of his hero, George Smiley.
on 5 August 2005
This is probably the finest of Le Carre's novels. His great creation, George Smiley, is repsonsible for finding a Soviet mole in the heirarchy of British Intelligence which has done immeasureable damage for decades. George is the most unlikely hero - ponderous, old, shy, retiring, but posessed of enormous compassion and iron will. This who-dunnit story plays against a general background of betrayal - the betrayal of the mole against the British state, the betrayal of the agents run by the mole, the betrayal of Smiley's wife's infidelity, the general betrayal of idealism in the Circus to the mundane self-serving ends of its leaders.
And then there is the setting - Britain in all its drab, mundane 1960's/70's glory. Drab colours, poor food, rain soaked days, steamed up car windows, snobbery and poverty. And the dialogue is second to none. So world weary, so wise. And the intelligence world rings true in this book too, it feels realistic, it feels about right. The moral ambiguity is embraced by Le Carre. Though there are heroes and villians in this book, the boundaries are fairly blurred.
Following in the tradition of Graham Greene, who wrote spy novels contemporaneous with his own, John LeCarre uses his experience in the foreign service and MI6 to add realism to his tales of espionage. Green, however, remained a friend of traitor Kim Philby and continued to send his novels to Philby after Philby defected to Russia. LeCarre, however, was betrayed by Philby to Russian agents, and his career was ended. This betrayal gives added realism to his novels, which show real disillusionment with the system and, sometimes, with its agents and officials.
Written in 1974, this novel draws on the real life LeCarre (real name David Cornwell) and many of his associates who were unmasked by Philby and the "Cambridge Five." Here LeCarre creates a vivid and morally sensitive story in which his hero, George Smiley, is called out of his enforced retirement to unmask a Soviet "mole" high in the British secret service, referred to as "the circus." Five men (as in the real betrayal) have been suspected. Drawing on his friendships with some of the agents who were dismissed when he was, Smiley investigates the security leaks which have led to humiliation for British intelligence and real danger for some of its agents. As he tries to identify the mole, he receives peripheral help from Sir Oliver Lacon of the British Foreign Office.
Written in formal and polished prose, the novel is full of Cold War complexities. Karla, the legendary head of Soviet intelligence, continues to control a small group of Soviet "defectors" and disillusioned Communists, whom the British mistakenly regard as double agents providing them with secret information. At the same time, British Control (who is never identified by name) is trying to uncover the Soviet mole (nicknamed "Gerald") within their own agency. Jim Prideaux, who appears in several Smiley novels, is working on this operation in Czechoslovakia, but he is betrayed and almost killed, his entire operation shut down, and many of his agents executed by the Russians.
Smiley's investigations are decidedly prosaic, not the exciting shoot-'em-ups of James Bond novels. Slogging through mountains of paperwork, interviewing reluctant former agents, and doing his own legwork, Smiley works at unmasking Gerald the hard way. The complexity of his character (and of the other characters here) make up for the relative lack of dramatic action and highlight LeCarre's skill at creating intriguing characters who see the "grays" in an otherwise black-and-white world. His dialogue is quick-paced, often witty, and revelatory of subtle character traits, adding to the depth of the portraits and to the intricacies of the world of spy/counterspy. n Mary Whipple
on 13 February 2008
Not only is this probably Le Carre's best work, but I'd rate it as one of the best novels of the 1970s. It perfectly captures the feeling of Britain's post-war decline and nostalgia for a greater time. It is a beautifully written, highly convincing story of the hunt for a high-ranking mole in the British Secret Service, with the effect of this on the memorable central characters (not least unlikely hero George Smiley) subtly portrayed. A gripping, immensely satisfying Cold-War thriller. And a great novel.
I was hoping for the BBC Radio Drama starring Bernard Hepton as George Smiley but I think that is unlikely now they are planning a series of Smiley dramas with Simon Russell Beale. This is the book read by John Le Carre and there is a lot to be said for it, John Le Carre has a good reading voice and a real feel for his characters. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am glad to have it in my collection. I will also look out the BBC Radio Dramas. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
on 19 July 2010
This is the second radio dramatization of Tinker, Tailor -- the first one appeared in 1989, with Bernard Hepton as Smiley.
This recording from 2010 is also three-hour performance, though in this case BBC has been kind enough to keep closer the original radio format, with announcements and credits at the beginning and end of each CD.
It is without question a very good performance. I can't fault Simon Russell Beale as Smiley in any important respect, not would I wish to. My personal highlights are: Ann Smiley (played by Anna Chancellor) who gets a reasonably prominent place as a voice in Smiley's head, where she undoubtedly belongs; Bill Haydon (played by Michael Feast), who gets a slight dash of snobbery, which I think suits the role; and Maggie Steed as Connie Sachs.
It's fairly close to the book -- in some places, I could swear they are reading straight from the pages, as I recognize familiar passages. And I have now listened to it three times, and I have not yet found a single rustle of scripts that shouldn't be there, although I must admit the performance sometimes make
me forget to listen critically.
So ... highly recommended.
For those who already know the older version with Bernard Hepton it is probably fair to say that I still rank that slightly higher, overall. I'm not entirely sure why.
Perhaps it is that it didn't require a narrator (which function is here taken on by Peter Guillam played by Ewan Bailey, who sometimes tells us things that Guillam actually wouldn't have known), or that it was played out in 'straight time', so there was no need for flashbacks, as here. Or perhaps is it that several of the minor characters, like Ricky Tarr's baby-sitter Fawn, or Registry janitor Alwyn, or Max, Jim Prideaux's babysitter in Brno, or even Jerry Westerby, have been cut out, perhaps to make place for the sequence where Smiley confronts Karla in a Delhi prison, a scene that was left out from that older production altogether.
And the war party when the Circus top brass are trying to figure out if and how Peter Guillam has been in contact with the suspected defector Ricky Tarr is reduced almost completely to Percy Alleline (Bill Paterson) haranguing Guillam. It has an almost minimalistic feel to it - if I recall, the book and the DVD had something like eight people around that table.
And just possibly when Prideaux asks Smiley about Gerald - a name Prideaux wouldn't have known. But I'm probably much too close to the book, and that's why these comparatively small details grate a little on my ear.
But this is just minor nitpicking -- I give it four out of five, and recommend it highly to anyone who wants to see (in the mind's eye) and hear Tinker, Tailor from a slightly different perspective than before.
on 2 February 2010
After publishing three books with George Smiley (GS) in a major or minor role, and one spy novel without him (A Small Town in Germany), John Le Carré (JLC) produced the monumental "Karla"- trilogy with GS as the undisputed hero.
This volume, first published in 1974, is Part One of the trilogy and in this reviewer's opinion JLC's very best creation among many other masterpieces. The principal theme in the book is the search for a "mole", an inside man turned traitor, within the higher echelons of the Circus, which runs some 600 agents worldwide. There have been inexplicable failures and disappointments. Control, the nameless head of the Circus is becoming suspicious of all of his staff, at a time when his health is declining rapidly. He becomes an increasingly marginalised person, poring over piles and piles of files, when a new source managed by a man keen to take Control's place, begins to enthral Whitehall with high quality reports...
Suddenly brought out of retirement, GS attends the debriefing of a rather dubious field agent and is requested to pursue the outcomes of the interview. In utter secrecy, GS starts his campaign to find the mole, aided by the trusted Peter Guillam and Retired Inspector (Special Branch) Mendel, who appeared first in JLC's debut Call for the Dead.
What makes this book exceptional is its plot, its dialogues, its atmosphere and more than ever, its characters. Chapter One about unhappy public schoolboy Bill "Jumbo" Roach meeting ex-betrayed spy, shot in the back, Jim "Rhino" Prideaux, ranks among the greatest first chapters in spy novels, on par with Trevanian's opening of The Loo Sanction. Totally brilliant.
on 26 January 2010
I've been a fan of the Smiley novels for some time and (unbelievably) didn't realise that they'd all been dramatised and were being broadcast.
Luckily, I managed to get on board with this, the first of the Karla Trilogy.
I've read the book a number of times but found that there were places where this adaptation actually made some points in the book clearer than before. For example, the fact that Karla knew about Jim's briefing by Control. I was disappointed that Jerry Westerby's interview with Smiley wasn't included as this gives a good lead in to the Honourable Schoolboy (though it doesn't detract from the plot of this story).
Simon Russell Beale is superb as Smiley. Occasionally there are echoes of Guiness - however I think this is more due to the nature of the part than any attempt at impersonation (le Carre himself said that Guiness was perfect as Smiley, so anyone else playing him should bear some similarity).
I also liked the mental dialogue between Smiley and Anne, for me this was a good way to hear what went on in Smiley's head during the hunt for Guillam.
All in all, this is a very atmospheric adaptation - I loved the paranoia of the walk across London heading for the safe house in Camden - with a great cast.
on 2 August 2014
This is one of the great spy novels, and is clearly modelled in no small degree on the story of Kim Philby, the 'Third Man' who not only tipped off Burgess and MacLean in 1951 and allowed them to escape before they could be arrested for leaking secrets, but then escaped himself in 1963 after his guilt had eventually been uncovered.
Set at the height of the Cold War it recounts the search for a 'mole' within the upper echelons of the Secret Service. George Smiley, 'an old spy in a hurry' is brought back from the involuntary retirement into which he had been pushed just a couple of years previously. He reluctantly accedes to be commissioned to investigate an allegation that one of the four officers at the head of MI6 might in fact be a long-established Russian spy.
'It's the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies? Who can smell out the fox without running with him?' This is the question put to Smiley by Oliver Lacon, 'Whitehall's head prefect' after he has explained the evidence that has finally convinced him of the existence of the mole. There are four suspects: Percy Alleline ('Tinker'), dour Scotsman and acting Chief of Service; Bill Haydon ('Tailor'), flamboyant wunderkind, alternately mentor and hero to the Service's younger generation of aspirants; Roy Bland ('Soldier'), would-be academic and ultimate self-seeking pragmatist; and Toby Esterhase ('Poor Man'), opportunistic Hungarian émigré desperate for promotion and convinced that no-one shows him the respect he deserves.
Control, the former head of the Service, had reached managed to reach this far before, acting entirely on his own, but as his health rapidly failed he embarked upon one wild last throw to flush the traitor out. This was the venture subsequently known as 'Operation Testify', alluded to throughout the book though the full extent of its disastrous nature is only revealed near the end.
The reverberations of Operation Testify echo through the Service for years afterwards. Control is forced into retirement and dies almost immediately. In the reorganisation that followed Smiley was also pushed into retirement. Alleline takes over, with Haydon as his deputy, and the new world order seem to have begun.
On the other side of the world, however, Ricki Tarr, a rough and ready member of the Service, accustomed to infiltrating gun-running gangs, meets Irina, a Russian agent in Hong Kong. Their affair is hectic and hasty, and she tells Tarr of the greatest secret that she knows: there is a Soviet mole, with the code name 'Gerald' in the highest echelons of the Service. She does not know many details but does have enough facts to convince Tarr that she is telling the truth. He passes the information back to the Circus, but receives no reply. However, Irina is almost immediately rounded up by her Soviet minders and shipped back to Russia.
Tarr goes underground and eventually makes his way back to London where he contacts Guillam, and through him Lacon. The witch hunt has begun. Smiley has to track them down through the paperwork, secured through deft chicanery by his one ally on the inside, the redoubtable Peter Guillam whose own career was truncated.
Le Carre offers none of the glamour and fantasy world cavortings of Ian Fleming's 'James Bond' novels. Smiley and his associates have to grapple with the shabby and entirely mundane underbelly of the espionage world, working back through the files, and eye-witness accounts of previous failed operations. There is absolutely no glamour or sparkle about the story at all, though that serves to boost its compelling nature.
It is also immensely redolent of the early 1970s. All the way through the book characters are freezing cold, huddled in their coats and struggling to generate any warmth at all. The enigmas and moral dilemmas, though, remain timeless.
This is a fascinating and engaging novel, that improves with every re-reading. The excellent BBC television series captured the feel of the novel very well,though the book (as is so often the case) is even better. Don't bother with the Gary Oldman film though - I haven't seen such a dreadful screen adaptation of an excellent book since they butchered [The Bonfire of the Vanities].