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The Book Club

John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

1. The spy novel. John le Carré’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was an interesting read; I have always been fascinated by novels in the thriller, mystery and detective fiction genres, so it was refreshing to go through a spy novel (and simultaneously pick out the many similarities in style or characterisation). What was especially distinct was my observation that le Carré’s book was very straightforward with its plot progression – without delving too much into individual themes or messages, compared with say, Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (here) – and with its storylines. Against the background of the Cold War conflicts, the general tensions – of the East versus the West, and the proliferation of intelligence agencies and their practices – are also very evident.

2. A classic “whodunit”? “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” functioned as a “whodunit”; but instead of uncovering the person responsible for a crime or murder in traditional detective fiction, the protagonist George Smiley attempts to catch a high-ranking mole – also known as a double agent – that has been buried deep inside the Circus (headquarters of the British intelligence service). It is established from the start, as well as progressively, that the lingering presence of the mole has had tremendous ramifications: Smiley’s mentor Control has fallen from grace and passed away, British agents have been compromised and betrayed, and many other intelligence initiatives have been affected.  Smiley, as the pursuer in the centre of everything, makes it an exciting ride for the reader.

3. George Smiley. “Reason as motive, or reason as logic, or reason as a way of life? They don’t have to give me a reason – I can write my own damn reasons – and that is better than the half-baked tolerance that comes from no longer caring”!

4. Entering the world of spies and its corresponding components. One of the main reasons why the book was particularly enthralling is because the reader gets the unique opportunity to explore the world of spies (never mind the degree of accuracy), and realise that the processes and representatives may not be as perfect or efficient as perceived. Jargon such as lamplighters, pavement artists and scalphunters are pretty self-explanatory – especially as the reader goes deeper into the exposition – but elements such as “The Security Mob” (a competing counter-espionage service) add an aspect of realism; the levels of bureaucracy and rivalling interests make the spy angle believable.

5. Flashbacks. The narrative begins in medias res (commonly used in crime thrillers and other detective novels), and background information is filtered in – through characters such as Jim Prideaux – to assist the reader and Smiley in their understanding and corresponding investigation. For instance, Smiley gets a clearer idea after finding out more about Operation Witchcraft and Operation Testify (a last-ditch attempt conceptualised by Control to uncover the mole); of which the latter was expounded in great detail by Prideaux towards the end of the novel.

6. Underlying Cold War tensions. “As a good socialist, I’m going where the money is, and as a good capitalist, I’m sticking with the revolution, because if you can’t beat it spy on it. Don’t look like that George, it’s the name of the game these days – you scratch my conscience, I’ll drive your Jag”.

7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? The mole is codenamed Gerald, and in a conversation between Prideaux and Smiley, the former revealed that there were five possibilities surfaced by him and Control; and so the book’s title is a coded reference to the possible suspects: Percy Alleline, Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase and Bill Haydon (as well as Smiley himself); though Smiley’s role as the lead investigator somewhat acquits him. Characterisation is key to the progression of the investigation: Smiley gathers insights and perspectives from his counterparts through interviews, research, conversations and introspection; they are like puzzle pieces that have to come together for the conclusion.

8. George Smiley makes the story exciting. For the modern reader who might be accustomed to fast-paced storylines (and unfamiliar with the Cold War circumstances, and the associated atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion and second-guessing), le Carré’s masterpiece may not be as engaging. Even though Smiley is totally dissimilar to the modern-day Bond or Bourne (for one, he is not a womaniser; in fact it is his wife who has been sleeping around), his presence empowers and comforts the reader; there is always this subtle assurance that dependence upon his intellect and skills would be the way to go. He has an extensive network of support staff that makes him seem even more formidable, is a great spymaster, and perceptive in his interactions with other characters.

9. A bloodless conclusion and explanation. “No, no. It was a perfect setup: Percy made the running, I slipstreamed behind him, Roy and Toby did the legwork. Being in charge would have bogged me down. All the admin, the dinners in Whitehall, hobnobbing with the Set … I couldn’t have behaved that way and gotten away with it. Much better for me to remain the freewheeling subordinate, the laughing cavalier. No, no, George, Karla and I agreed: I’d have been wasted as Chief. Could have done it, of course”.

10. A worthy read. Little subtle interactions also add value to the reading: Peter Guillam’s attempt to steal the Operation Testify file from the archives (and the associated descriptions); Smiley’s conversation – and the minute attention to details and nuances to extreme signs and details – to get Prideaux to speak more openly and constructively; as well as the sheer details conscientiously given on the espionage platforms et cetera.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


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