Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
“It’s the age-old question. Who can spy on the spies?” – Oliver Lacon
During my childhood days, me and my family were avid watchers of James Bond films. From time to time, my father would rent a VHS or a DVD (depending on which actor is portraying James Bond) and we would all sit in front of the television and watch the world of espionage that Ian Fleming (and Hollywood producers) has created with all the slick gadgetry, the action sequences, and the notorious womanizing. It comes as no surprise then that my view of the world of espionage and the spies themselves were heavily influenced by the James Bond anthology of films.
Fast forward, a decade and some odd years later, I saw the trailer for the movie version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and I was intrigued due to my love for two things: Spy films and Gary Oldman. I then made a mental note that I will watch Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when it comes out and I began scouring the web for production details and a brief synopsis. Thanks to the wonders of the web and the immense intellectual monstrosity that is Wikipedia, I learned that the movie was based from a book of John le Carré. I bought the book, began reading, and, a few pages in, I was instantly hooked.
The novel tells the Cold War-era story of George Smiley, a retired spymaster who was whisked from joblessness to the world that he left in order to investigate a mole within the Circus, Britain’s premiere intelligence agency. Using only his wits and a few of his trusted colleagues, he investigates the past of all the top brass of the Circus in order to deduce who is the traitor. What follows is an atmospheric game of cat and mouse and plain ol’ cerebral spy work. It may sound unexciting but the tense writing of le Carré will keep you at the edge of your proverbial seat while flipping the pages like a madman.
This is why Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not your typical spy story filled with black and white characters, glamour, and kinetic action. Instead, the book is about the study of characters that are all morally ambiguous and a spy service that does not have the pageantry and martini bars of Bond’s world. There are no slick Aston Martins, no state-of-the-art gadgets, and no recreational fornication. John le Carre has created a spy world where instead of fistfights, we have verbal swordplay; instead of sexy Bond girls, we have the formidable Connie Sachs; instead of the flamboyant Blofeld, we have the faceless Karla; and instead of the young and suave James Bond, we have the old and intelligent George Smiley.
What I liked about the book were its characters and the dynamics between them. The interactions between them are very well-written. The narrative, although confusing at times, is very rewarding for readers who pay close attention and are not bothered by multiple readings of a paragraph. The flashbacks are interwoven nicely with the narrative and the way le Carre has humanized his characters proves that he is much a master of character development as he is a master of storytelling.
All in all, I would recommend this book for both fans and non-fans of the genre as this is truly a work of a master. John le Carre has given us the realistic side of espionage. The side which is ugly; which shows that not even your friends can be trusted; that alliances can be an illusion to hide the perfect spy; and that heroism can be found in the mind of an old man filled with regret.