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on July 9, 2001
Le Carre is the best spy novelist ever and truly a modern master of literature. Tinker Tailor takes the reader on a journey through the murky labyrinths of british intelligence as the antihero Smiley, a plump, confused, betrayed, but deceptively steely and intelligent spy, ferrets out a mole burrowed into the highest levels of British Intelligence by his Soviet nemesis, Karla. The themes of betrayal, downfall, and the inescapable immorality of spying permeate this finely written book, while the challenge of discovering, with Smiley, who the mole is, captures the reader from the start. Le Carre's character developement is superior to almost any writer, living or dead, and the complexity of the mole, Smiley, Connie Sachs, and a host of other characters adds another superior facet. Finally, Le Carre's use of wonderfully quaint terminology, with "moles", "legmen", "burrowers", "the circus", and others making frequent appearances, spices up the book. The best spy book I have ever read, and I have read every book by Forsyth, Higgings, Clancy, and Craig, and almost every Ludlum. This may be a great spy book, but it is also an outstanding work of literature, like its two successors, and is a classic in every respect. Everyone should read it who has a mind and appreciation for a nobly done turn of phrase. However, this book isn't for the James Bond Boom Boom kiss the girl and fly off sort- requires thought!
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on April 13, 2002
One of Le Carre's masterpieces, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is much more than a popcorn espionage novel. The characters are vibrant, and the setting is very good. I enjoyed the seemingly bumbling George Smiley, a British ex-spy who's actually sharp as a needle. When the Service thinks it's been pentrated by a Soviet mole, they called in George, whom they fired years ago for a fiasco in Czeckoslovakia. (Smiley's boss had embarked on a small private war there, without authorization or reason, and had caused quite a disruption.) Smiley digs through mounds of files and old briefings by night, searching for the clues that will lead him to the mole. The plot is very well done. My favorite part of Tinker Tailor, however, is the brilliant characterization. I can almost smell the people on the pages. Connie, an eccentric old lady reminscing about her days in British Intelligence (the Circus), an emotional and unfortuate woman who never quite grew up; Peter Guillam, the impatient, embattled and embittered spy who drags Smiley back in to the Circus; Jim Prideaux, the strong-as-an-ox victim of Czeckoslovakia, shot and wounded in the back, the master of the game who hides as a teacher at a boys prep school and charms the students earning himself the honor of a nickname (Rhino); Roach, a fat, athsmatic boy at the prep school who is enchanted with Rhino, loves him and misses him dearly when school lets out, worries about him, and later sees him bury a handgun in the garden, eventually convincing himself that the gun was only a dream. There are scores of others, just as real. The thick plot and wonderful characters of John Le Carre's first Smiley novel make it a delight to read.
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on October 4, 2011
All in all I think Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a really great and compelling book. The writing is flawless and witty, and the characters are all extremely interesting. My only problem with the book is it excruciatingly slow pace, especially a quarter through where things got so slow I almost stopped reading all together. But things quickly pick-up near the end and while I saw the ending coming, it still made for a suspenseful story. And the book managed to get me even more excited for the upcoming film.
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on November 1, 2001
What happens if you've lost your friends, your motivation, your career is hopelessly stalled and you're coming to realize the entire foundation of said career is hopelessly misguided?
As John Le Carre shows us, we'd probably just soldier on, like Tinker, Tailor's immortal anti-hero, George Smiley. Smiley half-suspects that the capture of the M16 "mole" won't really matter in the end; he knows, anyway, that his country is no longer a nation of Empire and that all that awaits him is a drab retirement, but somehow, he finds the strength and the facility to keep batting for England: at the end of the day, he is actually serving his country.
Apart from the remarkable revelation that is George Smiley, Le Carre renders another expose: spying is nothing like we think it is - in fact, it is desparately unglamorous, lonely, plodding work in which even the leading lights will end up drowning in bureacracy. There are many, many scenes where our hero must navigate some dimly lit file room or office library, and the occasional, cringlingly embarassing office social gathering. But have no fear: the mole is found.
I agree with others that this is Le Carre's best work.
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on April 4, 2001
If you've read this masterpiece by LeCarrè then you would know why I think he is the greatest spy novelist ever.
The story is one of treachery in the "Circus"(which LeCarrè dubiously calls his Secret Service). LeCarrè having worked in the Secret Service (both MI5 and the SIS) for 15 years knows all about treachery. Indeed his Father, a ritzy-glitzy con man, betrayed him. Having experinced all this, you get in this novel what most others don't have:authenticity.
George Smiley: "One of London's meek who do not inherit the Earth", "small, podgy and at best middle-aged". Is a seemingly unremarkable character. Not particularly great-looking or glamorous or physically well built or anything else. The worst insult he can hurl upon a man is "you pompous featherhead". Yet beyond this inconspicuos shroud lies "one of the no-men of no-man's land".
He spends his time trying to forget all that he has learnt for they are only painful ones (his wife having cheated on him numerous times, having innocent people killed, meeting traitors who he was intimate with) but his past comes back to him in that a few fellow "old Circus"'s approach him with a request: find the mole that has buried himself deep into the upper echelons of the Circus for 30 years.
It is a trademark of LeCarrè's that he tends never to give us a happy ending in his novels but that is not him being cynical merely trying to communicate to us his messages about Life. Smiley has all of his old friends under suspicion: Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase, Percy Allelline, and Bill Haydon. We find Smiley going over some very, very old ground with some very painful and unhappy memories.
When Smiley catches the mole we are left breathless at his skill and his wonderful ability. Yet we do sympathise with him in that he has to unmask his very own friend, someone he has worked with for decades.
This is certainly not LeCarrè's best (I reserve that praise for "The spy who came in from the Cold") but it is still a masterpiece. Some of LeCarrè's "worst" novels are better than some authors' best and that's a fact. LeCarrè is definetely one of the great writers alive or dead, the great social historian of our times. His spy novels are merely a disguise for his messages about Life. Sometimes I found myself simply re-reading some sentences merely for their beauty, LeCarrè's use of language is eloquent. He is not the sort of commercial, predictable author and he is not particularly easy to read(especially his later novels) but at the end everything turns out so simple and flawless yet you are left wanting more.
This is one of the greatest spy novels ever and LeCarrè is one of the greates novelists ever. Read it and enjoy.
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on February 13, 2000
In TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, John Le Carre accomplishes the rare and admirable feat of transcending the genre and his customary themes of duty, duplicity and the ambiguities involved in a profession where violence, mendacity and amorality are intrinsic and necessary. At the center of the novel is the unprepossessing scholar George Smiley who reluctantly accepts the task of unmasking a high-level double agent who has burrowed (hence, the term "mole")into the highest echelon of the British Intelligence Service and is wrecking havoc not only with its own operations but with credibility in partnership with the increasingly powerful and arrogant American CIA. "The sun" is, indeed, setting on the British Empire and it is Smiley"s job to both "gracefully" superintend this historical reality with the thankless job of tracking down a gifted traitor. (The Kim Philby "mythology" is focal here) Le Carre has written in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy" a piece of literature with the murky world of espionage as background. His major concern, however, is an exploration of the human condition in its typical state of conflict and self-created confusion. In my estimate, Smiley is one of the most complex, engaging and compassionate characters in modern literature. Graham Greene attempted such characterizations in his "entertainments"/adventure stories; yet I do not feel any of his characters are as memorable as this...seemingingly...unlikely spy master. TTSS is, of course, the first in a wonderfully written trilogy (The Honorable Schoolboy is probably least successful but most recognizable as a tale of calculated vengeance and the show-down story is SMILEY'S PEOPLE where the scholar/spy faces down his arch-enemy in the KGB). Sir Alec Guiness played Smiley in the BBC tele-video of the story and is magnificent in conveying the humanity of a hero..cuckholded by a family friend and colleague...whose duty requires him to guard this humanity at personal and historical (the passing of power to the USA)crossroads in the face of class vanity, political realities and very recognizable individual weakness (and an ultimate act of treachery). The other two books are good. TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, however, is...I believe...a masterpiece of literature. It has virtually nothing in common with stories written by "thriller" writers like Fleming, Deighton, Clancy or Forsyth. The works of the latter are...usually...exciting and highly entertaining. George Smiley, however, has much more in common with Sir Thomas More than 007 or even Le Carre's own Alec Leamas (The Spy Who came in From the Cold). If you are a reader who enjoys the "spy" novel, this will satisfy you with its revelations about how a "secret service" probably works. If you are a student of literature, you may find this work ranking with the best written in modern British literature......
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on June 20, 1999
I read my books or listen to the tape of this trilogy every couple of years. It's a pleasurable ritual. I look forward to the next time the instant I turn the final page of Smiley's People and the hairs on my forearms stand erect and the shiver starts at the base of my spine. DON'T omit The Hounorable Schoolboy. The gold seam is critical, and to fail to know Jerry Westerby is a great loss. The actions taken by George after the fall are some of the most intricate and subtle examples of foreshadowing in literature. To carry all the threads, from Oxford in the twenties through the ascendency of the Cousins, to the final, fateful humanity of Karla, one must not skip a paragraph. The video referred to I remember as delightful to watch. I saw it on PBS in the 80's and failed to tape it and have been trying to locate a copy. I discovered the fact that TTSS was televised in 1979 and Smiley's People was televised in 1982. I intend to continue to search for the source of the videotape and will write again if I find it. If anyone else has a lead, please let me know.
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on December 23, 1998
Here's one attempt at a book review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which I consider is a classic in its own way.
The arrival of a schoolmaster at a remote English boarding school is the unlikely beginning of a master spy-story. If the reader has perused the dust jacket, he is left wondering where the connection is. A bit boring in the beginning, the start of the novel is far from spectacular. Characters unfold almost as an aside. Connections are not evident. When the hero of the novel, George Smiley makes his entrance it is almost as an afterthought.
Far unlike Ian Flemming with his techno-laden James Bond licensed to kill, Le Carre's George Smiley is a prosaic, pedantic, lugubrious, painstaking, ordinary mortal with an orderly mind. He is a hero like no other. Not for him the flashy glamour of the spy world popularized by Alistair McLean, Ian Flemming, and others of their ilk. Smiley's heroism lies in this mediocre methodic brilliance. And in his prodigious memory.
Cast away from the "circus", he is called in from retirement to trap a mole high up in the secret service. His fall from grace is more a reflection of the times than his inherent worth. As the bureaucratic battles yield new order in the ranks of service, Smiley, of the old order, is viewed with suspicion and forced into retirement. But much as the irrepressible James Bond could not be done away by his numerous enemies, Smiley's brilliance cannot be dispensed with by the Service. At a time when no one in the service can be trusted, when it is painfully obvious that one amongst the trusted four is a mole, Smiley is called in for his analysis. Nowhere is it stated that Smiley is brilliant. Nor does he appear to have any special skills. It is almost as an apology that he is called in to clean up the mess in the circus. He is given no special powers to search and detain. His character is an epitome of the British understatement.
Yet, as the story unfolds, it is evident that Smiley is far from ordinary. Even more extraordinary than his subtly demonstrated analytical skills, is his reluctant human skills. He reaches out into his past. He cajoles his colleagues to share information. Without overt official sanction, his interrogative style is almost an apology. This queries are excruciatingly painstaking and pedantic. His tone is lugubrious and half-sleepy. His attention to detail is phenomenal. His inferences from interrogation is unexplained.
The character of Smiley is an exquisite painting. Smiley appears to be more of an academic than a spy - more at home in the musty libraries than trysting with elite's from the Whitehall. His demeanor suggests a frumpy civil-servant rather than a spy-master. He can be readily pictured as a short, cherubic, owlish, diffident man with a marked disdain for the finer things in life. As he shuffles along the morose London streets, there is nothing to distinguish him from the multitude of middle-aged men beaten by Life. His elegant and beautiful wife, disenchanted by his prosaic existence, and has abandoned him. His chief occupation is in forgetting the time he spent in the Service. Not quite bitter about his ouster, he appears a bit confused. In this, the very ordinariness of the one-time head of the Secret Service is his greatest asset.
Le Carre, in his own way, is probably one of the greatest of story-tellers of our time. He binds his readers in a loose sort of spell. Quite unlike the modern authors who seek to rush their stories along at a great speed, seeking to upstage their own previous chapter with something more breathtaking in the next, Le Carre lets the plot of his novels mature by itself. He lets the reader dwell on the plot. He lets them think and ponder over it. He does not insult the readers intelligence by presuming to give too many details. Some of it, he seems to say, they have to work out themselves. There are no fast-paced change in directions yanking the readers from excitement to excitement. The continuity of the story is seamless. Rather like Alfred Hitchcock, he sometimes seeks to bring the reader to the brink of understanding and leaves him empty-handed. A suspense built in this slow, measured and deliberate manner leaves the reader a bit unfulfilled on one hand, but gives some chaff for thoughtful replay of the plot on the other.
And yet, Le Carre is rich in his portrayals. The details he seeks to give are more to build up clarity than to confuse. Where the details of Tom Clancy's novels drag his readers through a myriad of technical issues obscuring the plot, most of which are ultimately useless, Le Carre's details are like eye-glasses that bring the novel's environment into sharper focus.
Towards the end when Smiley catches up to the mole, we are left wondering how he did it. Trying to make the connections between various incidents and leaps of logic in inferences, we are left with a feeling of trying to catch wisps of smoke. There is presence without substance. It is always so in the shadowy settings of the "circus". Shadowy as it, we merely brush against the even more shadowy figure of "Karla" Smiley's arch-enemy at the Moscow Center - against whom he pits his wits time and again in this and other Le Carre novels. Karla's presence is more felt than seen, less realized than experienced.
Some books are evidently put together hastily. Some are well written. Some are poorly written and asks the plot to make up for the writing talent. A few books are not just well written but well crafted. Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy is one such. In the manner of a well-rendered painting, where subtle attention to details lend elegance without attracting attention to itself, so does Le Carre's attention to exquisite details portray a complete picture in the readers mind. The characters are three dimensional, and one can feel them. Like any good book with plethora of details, this novel transports the reader to the physical presence of the plot.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - the title adapted from a nursery rhyme - is a serious read. It is not an easy read, not a fun read, but a read for the discriminating mind seeking serious fiction. The cold war is now past. But the shadowy workings of the tradecraft is still current. This novel captures it in all its realism without sensationalism. It is a simple novel with a complex plot.
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on April 10, 1998
I've read this book at least a dozen times, along with the other two in the Quest for Karla trilogy, and it bothers me to know there are those who've read LeCarre and still think of Cold War writers like Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum. This can only happen when readers are inattentive or lacking perception. Tinker, Tailor could be summarized as a classic British whodunnit--and it's mighty enjoyable on that level-- and it is, on the surface, a spy procedural, a very good one, with obscure jargon any smart reader can decifer without help.

I understand a German intelligence veteren criticized LeCarre's accuracy in depicting the spy world. Who cares? LeCarre creates the atmosphere of inertial bureaucracy perfectly. And the story here isn't an action/adventure, it's a study of betrayal and loyalty. And this with some of the funniest silly twit dialog I've ever read. (You'll never find a Roddy Martindale in Tom Clancy.)

Graham Greene is gone now, is it reasonable to consider John LeCarre the best English novelist now living?
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on February 25, 1998
John Le Carre is a master of the spy thriller. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was the first Le Carre book I ever read. I was absolutely riveted by the knowledgable descriptions of tradecraft, and thoroughly enjoyed the Englishness of it all. The author keeps you guessing as to the identity of the mole to the end. When the discovery is made, I was simply awe-struck by the beauty of this work of fiction. The ending of this book is a prime example of what a spy novel (or any whodonit) should be.
Mr. Le Carre's books are sometimes difficult to get into initially, but the work is well worth it. I have read every Le Carre book since my experience with T,T,S,S, and while I have thoroughly enjoyed his recent efforts, this book remains my favorite. Mr. Le Carre was truly at the top of his form in the cold war spy novel, and the Smiley books in particular.
I heartily recommend this book to all fans of the genre, and to anyone who appreciates a great novel. I just wish I could read it for the first time again.
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