3 out of 5
I am not incredibly well-versed in spy fiction, but I feel like I’ve read a moderate selection to have a general feel for the genre. And, y’know, books in general: I read ’em, and I think I’ve read from a moderate selection of semi-modern and semi-classic authors, giving me a good-ish range of writing styles and approaches. That said, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carré does some rather peculiar structural things that made it really hard for me to find the book’s rhythm. It’s lively and detailed enough to hold attention until that point, but the book can also easily be put down until then, and that point isn’t until a bit past the halfway mark. Once there, though, the intensity and procedural espionage kicks up immensely, and it’s a solid tide to the end.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy waffles about for several chapters, dreamily setting up some principles: retired spy George Smiley – ex- of the British Intelligence “Circus” run by Control, whose passing signaled an overall change, Smiley included, under current head Percy’s leadership; Jim, a crook-backed new teacher at a private school, whose odd behaviors fascinate the children but are also suggestive of a complicated past; Peter Guillam, a demoted Circus worker who was Smiley’s protege; and panicked undercover op Ricky Tarr, who comes to Guillam and Smiley bearing troubling news. That news: there’s a mole in the London offices, purposefully feeding us disruptive info and stealing info in return for the Russians. (Cue some thoughts on how timely this stuff always is…)
The book’s three sections roughly break this down into learning about the mole; Smiley’s draw out investigation into matters; and bringing things to a close – a logical approach. However, this is where le Carré’s particular style rather over-complexifies things. Tinker Tailor is sometimes talked about as a rather dense narrative and I don’t think it is, but Carré mirrors Smiley’s interrogation style – in which series of possibly pointless questions are asked, feeling out for answers; and there’s no clear Ah-Ha – the right detail might be in the middle of those answers – in the chapter structure and tone, adding to that waffling sensation I verbed above. That’s interesting conceptually, and I do like spy procedurals that dig into the drudge work of dead ends – that you do have to cover all avenues to discover a singular thread with promise, and even then, it might be a loose thread – but it’s not all business: rather, le Carré reflects this approach in the way Smiley (and some of our other POV characters) float in and out of memories of Control days versus the current investigation. Some of these passages are to build character, but often they are just garden paths – they are part of the “conversation” in which, eventually, some small detail will hit and connect with a present one, or inform the way Smiley asks his next question. And the line between the two isn’t quite clear until after the fact, or until we’re in to that last, inertia-based third of the book.
This is all compounded by a curious chapter use: that le Carré doesn’t stop a chapter with a cliffhanger or exclamation point, he rather uses them as colons and semi-colons. For example, generally when a character starts talking about a dream they had, you might include the dream in that same chapter, ending on a profound point, or the conclusion of the dream. Le Carré will have a chapter discussing the dream first, and then a chapter with the dream, and somewhere in the middle of either one of those will be the important bit that Smiley focuses on. This is not “wrong,” but, for me, it set a sensation of never feeling like what I was reading was the focus – it was always leading somewhere else, but then once it’s led there, we’re already past whatever the point was.
The writing creates easily visualized characters and settings, and in each individual moment it is not boring, but neither is it directly compelling.
As an important piece of spy fiction, Tinker Tailor is surely worth reading, but I’d say it’s also the type of book to approach with the mindset of just getting through it, because the setup isn’t all that concerned with drawing the reader in, so much as it is making a consistent world in which George Smiley can operate. The payoff, surely, is that once the world is established, you do fully get it – you get how he’s connecting these points, and you can “see” this rather vast network of associates and spies and whatnot, and that does make for a rewarding conclusion. Whether or not 200+ pages of such setup is worth it to you is the question.