When Mystery & Suspense magazine asked me to write an article about political mysteries for July posting, I immediately thought of one of my favorite novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré, who died in December. I pulled the novel off my bookshelf, thinking I would skim a few pages to refresh my memory, but within minutes I was hooked once again. The book, published in 1974, is the most remarkable achievement in le Carré’s remarkable career.
I ultimately decided the novel didn’t quite fit the article I was writing, but I couldn’t just let it go. I had to revisit it here. If you haven’t read it, you must. If you have, it’s well worth a second, third, or fourth look.
When the novel opens, George Smiley, who appears in many of the books le Carré wrote, is unsettled and unsure—having recently been ousted in a purge of the Circus, the British version of the CIA. But when it becomes clear there’s a double agent high up in the organization, Smiley is summoned and given the assignment to track down the traitor. Despite his mistreatment, Smiley answers the call of duty and proceeds to spy on his former colleagues, friend and foe alike.
Smiley has to be one of the greatest fictional characters ever created, staring in the greatest spy novel ever written. He’s an honorable man in a profession that requires treachery, a portly, bookish man with a notoriously unfaithful wife, a slow-moving purposeful man who somehow looks dangerous just polishing his spectacles, a genius at deduction, and a clever interrogator. He never raises a hand or uses a weapon, relying solely on brain power to get where he needs to go. Think James Bond and then imagine the exact opposite.
Le Carré describes Smiley beautifully when he makes his first appearance on the rainy London day:
“Small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting and extremely wet.”
But it’s not just Smiley. Le Carré brings all the characters—big and small, good and bad—to life with vivid detail. In one scene that has always stuck with me, Smiley heads to Oxford to visit Connie Sachs, the former head of research for the Circus, an elderly women with a remarkable memory who has also been thrown out unceremoniously.
“She was a big woman, bigger than Smiley by a head. A tangle of white hair framed her sprawling face. She wore a brown jacket like a blazer and trousers with an elastic at the waist and had a low belly like an old man’s….On a trolley were the tins she ate from and the bottles she drank from.”
Smiley plies her with the sherry he brought and listens while she spins her stories, waiting for her to remember something that will help him get where he needs to go. Her stories are long but he senses that somewhere in them is the speck of new information he needs.
“Patiently Smiley waited for the speck of gold, for Connie was of an age where the only thing a man could give her was time.”
And of course eventually he hears and recognizes that speck of gold he needs.
The plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is incredibly complicated and filled with strange terminology that is never explained and only sometimes gleaned from context (I still can’t define the lamplighters, one of many terms le Carré invented). But the gist of the plot is clear enough, and the characters are fascinating, even when they are not doing anything.
The book spawned a British five-hour mini-series in 1979 that captivated millions of viewers. Alec Guinness is brilliant as Smiley and it is one of the rare instances when the book and film adaptation actually work to make each other better. I cannot read the novel today without seeing Guinness in Smiley’s chair, his ability to capture an emotion with a tiny lift of an eyebrow equal to le Carré’s ability to create a full character with a few terse phrases. There was a remake of the series as a big-screen movie in 2011 staring Gary Oldman (who has the audacity to be slim and stay fit swimming laps). The remake is akin to a cinematic war crime; the original can’t be improved, so why would anyone try? The obvious reason is to make it two hours instead of five, but that’s exactly the problem.
But don’t let me leave you with the impression that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is just a good story with fascinating characters. It is also a critical look at the class distinctions in British society and a study of the ethics involved in intelligence and other parts of government. In an interview back in 1968 about double agent Kim Philby, the obvious prototype for the mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, le Carré said Philby illustrates “the capacity of the British ruling class for reluctant betrayal and polite self-preservation,” adding that the British secret services are “microcosms of the British condition, of our social attitudes and vanities.”
That’s clearly the view that le Carré takes in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Whether it was accurate fifty years ago, let alone today, is for someone else to say. But it makes for an intriguing thesis in the best spy novel ever written.