This is one book that is very difficult to review. It’s full of contradictions. I love the book but it was also incredibly slow and for a spy thriller kind of novel, well, it’s not so thrilling at all.
So what’s the book all about?
In a nutshell, there is a mole (double agent) within the top echelons of the British secret service. Nobody can be trusted so retired agent George Smiley is recruited from outside to investigate and uncover the mole.
In principle, it sounds like something James Bond lovers would read and enjoy.
As soon as I started on this book however, I realized this is not the case. The book and George Smiley don’t resemble James Bond in the least bit. What the book does is provide a very gritty, realistic feel about how the spy network used to be during those cold war years.
So why does this book feel so real?
The author, John le Carré (see his bio here) used to work for MI5 and MI6 and he brings a lot of that knowledge to this book . Although I have no idea what the life of a spy is like there are some books/movies that just feel fake, and Carré’s prose, terminology, and characters feel more real than other spy books.
Also, when I was much younger, I used to love reading spy stuff and I remembered very clearly the stories about the Cambridge Five – a set of British spies who were secretly working for the Russians. Their bios were beyond engrossing. And when I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I could immediately recognize how much this book was inspired by those real-life events.
A little more wikipedia research revealed that John Le Carré’s spy career actually came to an end because his cover was blown by Kim Philby – one of the top Russian recruits within the Cambridge Five.
So, this book looks and reads authentic, and I really appreciate that aspect.
Thoughts on the book
But, while the book feels intensely real, it also has the drawbacks of being a real read meaning that in many places the story drags and the action is practically non-existent. Even when there is action, it’s all in the background, with people telling what happened rather than the event happening upfront and center of the book.
I also had difficulty with the spy lingo that is scattered throughout the book without any kind of explanation whatever. This book could have done with a glossary of terms (something like this link), which would have reduced my guessing my way around words like lamplighter, nursery, housekeepers etc.
I guessed the identity of the mole quite early in the novel (woman’s intuition ;)), but still I liked walking through George Smiley’s footsteps while he investigates the main suspects.
This is definitely not like any 2-day read thriller that I am used to. Once I got into the plot however, I began to enjoy it quite a bit. But, I enjoyed it more for the world building and the spy environment than the actual thriller aspect. Le Carré’s writing also feels unnecessarily dense (almost dated) in places and so overall I would not recommend it for hardcore thriller fans unless you are willing to tolerate the slow pace and the dated writing.
Me? I am definitely willing to try his other books 🙂 .