Extrapolating from what I’ve heard of his other works, and from my own experience reading Tinker, Tailor, John Le Carré is an author who treads the middle ground between the explosive and hyperbolic super-spy works of Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming and their ilk, and the grounded and far more literary works of Graham Greene. There are times when the characters take turns monologuing lengthy bits of exposition to each other, or describing careers that beggar belief in their breadth, when you grow a bit tired with the whole thing. There are other moments when you begin to grasp the incredible intricacy of the world he’s building, full of disturbingly human characters, and revealed with a truly impressive degree of self-control. The end result is a book that you don’t want to stop reading, for any reason.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Tinker, Tailor is the way in which Le Carré melds the two worlds of 1970’s British Intelligence. You get a sense of the last vestiges of true Britishness, a generation still upholding the old notions of Queen and Country, having defended the Empire against the Germans and now struggling against the communists. You can almost smell the scotch and tea, and feel the old leather of chairs sitting in stuffy gentlemen’s clubs. At the same time, you can ways in which modern life and the Cold War have brought about an aching routine of banality and resignation to the lives of MI6’s elite. Many of them have come to regard lives as a commodity to be traded for better intelligence, and careers have so consumed their lives that they can’t maintain meaningful relationships.
I have heard the book criticized as dull, with a plodding pace and little payoff, but I think that is only half true. The pace is certainly deliberate, but this isn’t a story about shootouts in secret volcano lairs or assassinating some important apparatchik before a war begins, it’s the tale of a mole hunt stretching back for years and it’s firmly based on a real event. I do concede that given the steady build and sense of betrayal that grows against the mole, the ending feels fairly anti-climactic, but this fits so perfectly with the character of George Smiley that I don’t feel that it lessens the story. He is the embodiment of some of the best parts of the old Empire, and treating a worthy adversary with dignity and not sinking to his enemy’s level are what make him who he is. To have a furious denunciation or desperate gunfight wouldn’t fit with the tone of the piece or the personalities of the characters involved. Perhaps the one thing that bothered me about the story as a whole was the use of the child narrator. I understand why he wanted to view Prideaux through the eyes of an innocent, but in a book that sticks almost entirely to the points of view of experienced spies who directly effect the plot, the continual return to the boy’s school felt forced and unnecessary.
In any case, Tinker, Tailor is a work that has clearly struck a note, inspiring two film adaptations and certainly influencing many writers. It is a compelling book on a fascinating topic written with a self-assurance born from direct experience.