Spying on a different English world – A review of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1974)

Level B2; Genre: Spy/Thriller

It is time to dive straight into the deep, dark world of this wonderfully written spy thriller. This classic has everything in it from deceit and treachery all the way to adultery and espionage. With this book, John Le Carré not only made a legacy for himself as one of the finest authors of his generation, but also foremost British spy thriller author ever. Let’s take a closer look at the book.

George Smiley – not your typical spy

George Smiley, a wise and experienced man is the main character in this book. He has peculiar interests for example 17th Century German literature. George comes from a background, which is completely different to many who are at the British Secret Service MI5. He is from a state school. His counterparts in the book all come, however, from private schools for example Eton, Cambridge and Oxford.

The main theme

Well, to put it simply, it’s about espionage and counter-espionage during the middle of the Cold War at MI5. However, the plot of this book is much deeper and richer than a James Bond film, which revolves around the similar themes. In this book, George Smiley, investigates his former employers in complete silence. There is, according to the rumours flying around, a mole deep inside of MI5. Peter Guillam (former protege of Smiley) and Oliver Lacon (under-secretary at MI5) ask Smiley to investigate the rumours.

Tangled webs

After a failed operation in Czechoslovakia leaves an agent badly wounded and tortured, Smiley and Control (former head of MI5 and the boss of Smiley) are fired on the grounds that they were responsible for the failure. With Smiley and Control out of the way, Alleline, Haydon, Esterhase and Bland set about selling low-grade British information to the Soviets in return for high-level intelligence, that they sell on to the Americans.

One way in, one way out

Smiley realises, however, that something is quite wrong. The further he goes down the deep rabbit hole, the darker it gets. Additionally, there is only way in and one way out of this investigation. Above all what is most notable is that someone has been constantly giving away classified information to the Soviets. In other words, what the British received was “chicken-feed” and the Soviets received “gold-dust“. Not knowing what exactly he would find, Smiley talks to people who were involved in previous operations like agent Ricki Tarr, who is a persona non grata. With the help of Tarr, Guillam and Lacon, the web slowly untangles leaving four possible suspects: Alleline, Haydon, Esterhase and Bland.

To find out what happens, you should read this book.

So, why should you read this book?

This book is a slow-cooker. Nonetheless, there is an underlying current of tension and an atmosphere that builds slowly from the beginning. Le Carré scripts his characters perfectly so they all fit together perfectly. Additionally, George Smiley’s character stands out because of his simplicity, yet his persistence at getting to the truth. This book also gives us an understanding of how the ruling classes worked in Britain. Le Carré commented in 1968 that: “the British ruling class [are capable of] reluctant betrayal and polite self-preservation”. In other words, if betraying someone helps to preserve the status quo, then, according to Le Carré, the ruling classes will happily do this.

If you are looking for something a bit different and more complex to read, then this book is perfect for you. Write a message in the comments section and tell me what you thought of this book!


New York Times Book Review

NPR Review

The Guardian review

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