I don’t remember exactly when I added Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to my very long reading list, but the release of the new film based on the book reminded me what it was about and that I wanted to read it. A thriller set during the Cold War sounded perfect for me.

The novel takes place in the early 1970s and centers on the British overseas intelligence agency MI6. George Smiley, formerly Deputy Head of the Service, has been retired from the agency for about a year after being forced out of the agency by new leadership. However, when Civil Service officer Oliver Lacon learns that there is a Soviet mole codenamed “Gerald” in the highest ranks of MI6, he recruits Smiley to get back to work finding and exposing the mole, with limited evidence and without the knowledge of MI6, as new agency chief Percy Alleline and his three closest deputies are all suspects. If you want to know more about the plot…well, you’ll just have to read the book.

This is a dense, complex novel, and I found it took some effort to follow. A great deal of spy jargon is used, and I found it took a while to get all the terms straight and remember what they all meant. There are many characters—a few known by multiple names—and many intricate details and subplots. This is a much heavier read than many thrillers or adventure stories, and the reader definitely feels almost as much tension in the search for the Soviet mole as George Smiley and his former protégé Peter Guillam.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not for the impatient reader, but for those who can keep all the jargon, multiple identities, and plot complications straight in their minds, this is an intense, intelligent, and gripping novel. It presents an important side of the Cold War that doesn’t always come through in the history books, and it brings the intrigue and drama of “office politics” to a whole new level. John le Carré examines questions of loyalty, betrayal, and friendship throughout the novel, as well as the impact of losing one’s life’s work and of learning difficult truths about the important people in one’s life. Most importantly, it is an exciting story that combines intellect and action, always keeping both readers and characters constantly on their toes.

One of the most important aspects of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and what perhaps sets it apart the most, is the protagonist George Smiley. It is clear from his first appearance that he is not a James Bond type and probably never was. It also quickly becomes clear that Smiley was one of the best at MI6, and that his dismissal was a matter of office politics, not incompetence. As the novel moved forward, I found myself rooting not only for the mole to be found, but also for Smiley to expose the folly of the new MI6 chief and even regain his position in the agency. George Smiley, unlike many fictional spies (at least to my knowledge of the espionage genre), is far more substance than style, as fictional characters should be but often aren’t in the mystery/thriller genre.

The new movie of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is now nominated for a few Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Smiley. This is the kind of novel that I expect could make a great movie, and I look forward to seeing and reviewing it soon.

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