Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre

“Look… we’re getting to be old men, and we’ve spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems. I can see through Eastern values just as you can see through our Western ones. […] Don’t you think it’s time to recognise that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”

Spy novels have never gripped me. I don’t know why – maybe I grew up so surrounded by over-the-top versions of suave, sneaky secret agents that a “serious spy novel” almost felt like a contradiction in terms. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a very serious spy novel set in the Cold War. Great Britain is soaking, battered and tired, and the men who are tasked with “protecting” it are just old enough to long for days when their country felt glorious. While occasionally dry enough that you could confuse the pages for sandpaper, this a satisfying, occasionally confusing read.

George Smiley, our protagonist, is a round, pasty, recently-fired fellow who wears ill-fitting suits and until recently was one of the most intelligent and formidable spies in British intelligence. MI5—sorry, “The Circus” (Carre, due to his own extensive history with intelligence services for the UK, was asked to change numerous details in the novel to avoid revealing too much real information) has been given evidence that one of his old chums is a Russian mole. He is tasked with finding the traitor.

Carre shines when it comes to dialogue, and seeing these fiercely intelligent men and women match wits is a treat. All the characters have detailed, interesting backstories. They feel relateable in their concerns and worries, and provide an interesting look into how real spies might think and operate. Just what would a life of betrayal do to your psyche? When you have tricked so many people, do you have it in your heart to truly hate the person who switches your world over and bamboozles you?

The amount of paperwork sifted through is impressive, as is that a book with so little action can feel so tense. Like with any good mystery story, you have the puzzle pieces from almost the beginning, but you can’t quite tell what the picture is until it’s finally all put together.

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