I’ve never been much of a thriller reader. My father is a fan of the genre, but the closest I’ve come to reading the crime and spy novels he likes is a brief John Grisham phase in my teens, around the same time all the hot young things in Hollywood were starring in the movie adaptations. While it wasn’t exactly full of heart-throbs, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a fabulous movie. Once again I was inspired by celluloid to pick up a book and try one of the masters of the spy genre - John le Carré.
Those of you who have seen the movie will find the plot very similar. A British SIS officer is sent to Czechoslovakia on a top secret mission by the head of his agency, known only as Control. Control has reason to suspect a mole is operating amongst his highest officials, and a Czech general is promising him a name. When events go wrong, and the spy is shot, heads roll within the security service. Months later Control is dead, and rumours of a mole have resurfaced. Once a suspect, the ousted spy George Smiley is the ideal candidate to hunt out which of his former colleagues is spying for the Russians.
Because not only the set up, but also the way the plot plays out, is basically the same, I found it a bit of a shame that I hadn’t read the book first. Still, I enjoyed the book even though I knew what would happen. Unlike a lot of thrillers we are used to these days there is no race to solve the mystery. Instead we follow Smiley through his logical reconstruction of events, and eventual trap, to discover who the mole is, at the same time that Smiley has his (unvoiced) suspicions confirmed. If you are looking for a mystery to solve, this isn’t the book for you. Perhaps this is why I wasn’t bothered by knowing the outcome. Le Carré isn’t interested in red herrings, or tantalising details; he unfolds the mystery in a logical way, and at a calculated pace. It is the world of the spy that is of importance, not the mystery. The book is full of spy speak, which can take a while to get your head around - to be honest I got confused as to the difference between ‘shoemakers’ and ‘lamplighters’, though some, such as ‘pavement artist’ to describe those following a suspect, have a charm (and clarity).
The story is told in third person, following Smiley, as he tries to piece together what is going on. He does this by meeting fellow spies - talking to those who will talk secretly, hunting down those who were ousted after the Czech scandal. I found the way the narrative flowed interesting, as it meant that a lot of the real action in the novel is narrated, in conversation, after the fact. It is curious to me, looking back, that it works. Through Smiley’s conversations we build a thorough picture of that fateful night, who was where, talking to who, whose stories have gaps in them. But we also know the outcome. It could all be very dry, but le Carré brings each scene to life, so the stakes seem real.
Although this is the first of a trilogy, it is actually the fifth book Smiley has appeared in. He is le Carré ’s perfect spy - what he lacks in physical brilliance he makes up for in mental acuity. His last name is somewhat ironic, as he comes across as a rather inexpressive chap. I gather that this is not the only le Carré novel to find Smiley brought in from the outside somehow to investigate, or tidy up after other spies. As a narrative device it clearly works. I do wonder if I would find it so interesting after reading a few similar books. I am however sufficiently intrigued that I can see myself reading a few more of these at some stage in the future.
The Cold War is brought vividly to life, with a nice bit of moral ambiguity on both sides. The SIS might be a world peopled largely with middle aged white men, but the major players all have personalities that leap off the page - from repressed anger, or ruthless ambition, to the feeling of failure. The nit and grit of this book might be a spy story, but it is also a story of how people react to betrayal. The ending is beautifully understated. What the film made quite explicit, the book only implies. It might not end with a bang, but it’s not a whimper either. The pay off, if you have been paying sufficient attention, is a very satisfying conclusion.