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Thursday, 16 August 2012

Book review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carre (1974)

Because of the 2011 release of a movie based on this book - the first English-language film by Swedish director Thomas Alfredson, and which has a number of good British actors in it, including Gary Oldman as George Smiley and Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam - I think a good place to start this review of the novel is with a quick look at how it differs from the film. But first it should be said that, like the film, the novel moves pretty quick. You have to pay attention, and even if you do you will miss clues.

The main areas where the movie is lacking complexity and detail are in the story of Ricky Tarr and Irina, and in the story of what Jim Prideaux was doing in Czechoslovakia when he got shot. Irina's story - which takes place in Hong Kong in the book, but in Turkey in the film - is important because it positively alerts the Circus through operative Ricky Tarr to the possibility of a mole in the British secret service. The Jim Prideaux episode is very important because of the fact that he was sent to Czechoslovakia with the aim of receiving information about a mole, by the service top man, Control. Control had suspected a mole but his time ran out. A series of operational catastrophes and ill health undermined his standing with his superiors. The book opens with George Smiley, Control's right-hand man, experiencing the uncertain pleasures of unemployment following Control's death and the installation of a number of other service operatives in senior positions within the organisation. Smiley is out, Percy Alleline is in. Alleline has enjoyed professional success on the back of tainted information the mole is feeding the government. He has used the feed to promote his own interests within the organisation.

George Smiley is asked to investigate, and he uses a colleague, Peter Guillam, and a few others, to implement his strategy for finding out the truth. Documents must be accessed. People have to be interviewed. Fat and out of luck in the marital stakes, Smiley trundles around the moist English countryside like a lonely duck looking for clues to what has really gone on in the Circus over the past few years.

While the pace is quick the book contains a number of longer narrative segments that didn't make it into the film. Smiley's long account of the time he interviewed Karla in India is one of these. There are also long sections of text involved in the contemplations of Jim Prideaux during his exile teaching languages in a secondary school out in the sticks. With passages like these in the book it tends to read slower than the film progresses, or at least it has a more uneven gait: slow at times but then with rapid jumps as le Carre switches hands from one narrative strand to another. Those quick shifts do work, however, and what you do not find in the novel is the kind of reflective filler that other genre novels often contain; those sections of text that serve novelists who want to slow down the story but which merely go over ground they have already covered. Such bits of filler are common in use by crime novelists because they enable them to transition with a bit of dignity from one key moment to another, but le Carre does not rely on them and his book is the richer for a disciplined approach to regulating the speed of delivery.

The skill le Carre deploys is matched with his superior knowledge of the spy game; le Carre worked in British intelligence between 1958 and 1964, eventually leaving when his writing began to gain traction. He got into the service due to his work during the early stages of the Cold War with the Army Intelligence Corps; he had studied foreign languages in Switzerland in 1948 and 1949. The name is a pseudonym for David Cornwell; Cornwell chose the name because of organisational strictures on publishing under a real name. The experience le Carre gained in the service has obviously been useful to him as a writer, but it is his work as a writer that is most interesting.

The film is good. Anyone who has seen the film will doubly enjoy the novel mainly because the novel adds a number of dimensions to the viewer's understanding of how a suspicion of Control that there was a mole in the service grew into a full investigation; where Smiley comes into the picture. The book lacks any resort to cliche to maintain the reader's interest. Death is not held out as an inducement to read on; in fact, where death enters the story it does so very shyly. And there are no narrative complications that threaten hurt to key secondary characters - another common resort of genre writers who want to spice up their stories with a little sadism and blood. The novel might indeed be a classic of the form but the implication doesn't really matter to me. What's important is that it works well and is a real pleasure to read.

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