Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

John Le Carré
Alfred A. Knopf, 1974
355 pages


This book was kind of excruciating to read, but I dogged my way through it because I wanted to know the story before the film opens in the U.S. in December. I'd never read anything by Le Carré before, so I don't know if all his books are as much of a slog as this one. Or maybe it's just that I'm out of practice with the whole spy thriller genre; I go through cycles with what I read and haven't done Clancy and his ilk in at least a decade or more.

While reading TTSS, I could absolutely picture how I would script it for film, but it works better that way than in prose, I think. A lot of the story involves the main character—a British spy named George Smiley who has been forced into retirement—reading old dossiers and interviewing witnesses. Not terribly engaging in and of itself, but easy to fix with visuals within a movie.

There are a handful of honestly intense moments, but they are outweighed by the long intervals of reminiscences. I think some of the flashbacks are intended to be intense, too, but since the reader already knows who came out alive, there's little to sustain the tension.

The core of the story is Smiley attempting to ferret out a double agent, or "mole," but finding out who, or even why (and admittedly the "why" is flimsy in any case), ends up being not so interesting as how.

I know TTSS was not Le Carré's first novel, and knowing so little about his catalogue of work, I have no idea if I was supposed to know Smiley and some of the other characters from previous tales. If so, this may have been one of the reasons I found the book a bit thin on character development. All these potentially interesting people, but it was more tell than show when it came to interior dialogue and motives. I wanted to see them do things that would inform me about their characters, but it was a lot of sitting and talking, or sitting and reading, or walking and talking, or riding in cars and talking (which is more or less the same as sitting and talking), or the author simply telling the reader what the character felt. In the end, all this gave the feeling that the characters lacked depth.

Or maybe that's the point. Maybe spies lack depth because they're all façade in any case. But really, that makes the meal somewhat unsatisfying. Considering the time I'm devoting to the story, I'd like to think all the people I'm reading about have complex makeups, even when showing only one facet—the reader should be led to believe it's one facet of many. In TTSS, whether it be the British rectitude or secret agent reserve, the reader may not be convinced there's any more to the men than the little that is shown.

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