First published in 1974 Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy is John Le Carre’s features George Smiley – a spymaster who has been forced to retire following the failure of an operation. After evidence of a soviet mole is behind the failure of recent operations Smiley is asked to investigate in total secrecy since all senior Circus staff are suspects.
This was an enjoyable but sometimes confusing read which skips back and forth in time. There were a lot of characters to follow, and a lot of jargon (most of which was created by Le Carre). Some of us felt that reading the book after seeing either the television or film adaptations helped to keep us on track! The writing flows easily but sometimes a lot is left for the reader to infer which was a little frustrating.
The book is not sensational in its presentation – it conveys how much undercover work is very routine (even mundane) and the enormous bureaucracy behind the operation. We were fascinated by the level of detailed observation went into a simple walk down a street – noticing minor changes that could denote something sinister, awareness of the people around who might be following. We also commented on the impact that being a spy had on personal and working relationships: not being able to share information with loved ones; being suspicious of all around you; power struggles and politics in a service where all practice in the art of subterfuge.
The novel is supposedly based on Le Carre’s experiences of the relevations that exposed Guy Burgess and Kim Philby. We discussed the supposed motive of the mole which was not leftwing idealism so much as wishing to be associated with a country wielding power across the world.