I am hesitant to write a review of John le Carre’s seminal spy novel, for at least two reasons. The first is that I can’t quite tell how much seeing the movie beforehand impacted my enjoyment of the book. Knowing the identity of the mole may have made the book seem more tedious than it would have otherwise. The other thing is that this is really the first spy novel I’ve ever read, so I have no handle on how it stacks up to other novels in its field. My preferred genre is mystery, and le Carre’s prose style and plotting do not stack up with many of the mystery writers I have read.
The novel follows a former member of British Intelligence named George Smiley as he is pressed back into service in search of a mole. Smiley is essentially an anti-Bond, unglamorous and slightly dull. It is likely a more realistic portrayal of the life of a spy, but for the purposes of fiction it is an unpromising choice.
As he investigates his former co-workers Smiley must decide who and what to believe. There is a returned defector telling an improbable tale about a beautiful woman willing to inform against Moscow. Smiley’s former boss Control, now dead, believed there was a mole, but he may have been losing his edge while trying to maintain his position. Then there are the Young Turks who were eager to supplant Control: Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Toby Esterhase, and Roy Bland. Smiley’s investigation focuses on these men, and after some mild intrigue about stealing files out of the MI6 office and other little ruses, the mole is revealed.
In the film version, the four main suspects were lightly characterized, something which could be excused for the sake of brevity. But it is inexcusable in a nearly 400 page novel. Characterization seems to be an afterthought to le Carre. When it is done at all it is haphazard, blunt, and inept. Smiley is giving a cheating wife, potentially to humanize him, although this too factors into the plot. The others are variously said to be small-minded, artistic, untrustworthy, or what have you. It really doesn’t matter much, the adjectives may just as well have been picked at random for all they have to do with the way the characters are written.
I can’t definitively say that my opinion wouldn’t be different if I had gone into the book fresh, but as is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a plodding non-thriller. So much so that I find myself wondering how anyone ever thought to turn it into a movie.