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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Re: Department of Book Reports: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Some forty plus years ago, John LeCarre began writing a series of novels in the spy genre. And no one else has done so any finer. He was inspired, in part, by the success of the highly popular James Bond books; as fun as those books about Fleming's hero might be, they had little, if anything to do, with true spycraft and intelligence gathering.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Bantam Books) was originally published in 1974 and was the first of what LeCarre thought of as his "Karla Trilogy". A sacked, and officially retired, George Smiley has been secretly recalled to ferret out a "mole" in British Intelligence. By interviewing old colleagues, utilizing some detective work, and by setting clever traps, Smiley eventually finds the Moscow agent who has been long passing state secrets to the Soviets, whose Moscow Central is run by the elusive Karla (memorably played, by the way, in the BBC adaptation of this novel by Patrick Stewart).

But that is not enough of a description. LeCarre's early books always involved very human spies, who didn't dash around in Bentleys, and drink vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred); involved the dubious morality displayed by both sides of the Cold War; and the nostalgia for the disappearing British Empire. LeCarre is a master stylist, whose oblique storytelling rivals Joseph Conrad's. Tinker, Tailor... begins by following a young British public school student, Roach, who has made it his mission to figure out the new teacher, a mysterious Jim Prideaux, who has some sort of history to him that is fascinating. From there, we slowly learn Prideaux's story and how his fate will eventually expose the mole in the Secret Service.

More than that, Tinker, Tailor... works as a mystery novel. Years ago I was visiting my uncle and aunt who were then living in Aberdeen, Scotland. On my return to London, I sat on the train with a young woman, who I shamelessly flirted with. During the ride we talked about many things. It turned out we disagreed with each other about Pre-Rapaelite art; she loathed it and I liked it. We happily changed the subject, eventually, and got onto the BBC production of the novel, which was just then showing in its first run on the telly in England. I ventured that I had read the book, and she nearly shouted at me, "Oh, don't tell me who Mole is!". I refrained from spoiling the end. But we went our separate ways after arriving in Victoria Station. But you take my point. The whole of England was in high suspense.

(The BBC production is nearly perfect with wonderful performances, especially that of Alec Guiness' Smiley. I highly recommend hunting it down.)

In any event, I think Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the finest spy novel ever written. Eminent book reviewer/librarian, Nancy Pearl says of it: I probably re-read John LeCarré's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" once a year. As I said, it was the first of a trilogy which also includes The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley's People (also well-adapted by the BBC).

John LeCarre is still enchanting his readers. His latest novel is A Most Wanted Man (Scribner $28.00) was published late last year. This novel and many of his others are available at Jackson Street Books and other fine independent bookstores.

democommie is operating this week under Moscow rules and we all know how tough those are.


  1. SeattleDan:

    Sorry about the miscommunication. I should never send e-mails after I've had less than one, but more than seven drinks. What it should have said is that I'm operating under Moscow Mules (Ginger Beer and fermented/distilled potato juice). Those bad boys will kick your ass.

  2. In our second bedroom, I keep a basket atop the closet filled with old favorite paperbacks. Last week I pulled 'A Perfect Spy' out for another read. No one writes Teh Spy like LeCarre. No one.

  3. LeCarre is almost as good on the screen as on the page - the Alec Guinness as George Smiley in TTSS being one great example, the other being Richard Burton as the Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Almost, but not quite -- the Honorable Schoolboy is a favorite as is the Russia House.

    And like all right-thinking Canuck, it isn't Christmas for me until I've heard "Fireside Al" Maitland read "the Shepherd" on CBC Radio's "As it Happens"

  4. I read Fleming at the usual age, but didn't have much use for the genre until I saw the BBC productions of LeCarres work. Since then I've been a huge fan. Some guilty pleasures, most fine literature.

  5. I loved Perfect Spy. It is one damned sad novel.

    Smiley is a minor character in Spy Who Came In. LeCarre's first two novels featured Smiley as the main character. As I remember them, they were good, if somewhat conventional, mysteries. And, yes, it was one of Burton's best roles. Oskar Werner is also very good in it.

    Bond is Bond. Fun. But not really spy stuff, with perhaps the exception of From Russia with Love.


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.