Book Group Report – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré

This was my suggestion, actually a re-read for me, however, in between reading it for the first time decades ago and now, I must have watched the original 1979 TV series starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley at least four times including during lockdown, and I’ve seen Thomas Andersson’s film with Gary Oldman a few times too, so my familiarity with TTSS, did put me at rather an advantage. It’s fair to say that my beloved spy stories are not equally loved by some of our group, some of whom struggled. Admittedly, although Le Carré’s plot is simple – it is labyrinthine and detailed in its playing, and the cast of characters and their roles is large.

The classic UK hardback cover with the Russian dolls, suggesting layers of personality, betrayal, etc.

Published in 1974, and set then and in flashback, TTSS concerns a mole at the heart of the top levels of the British Intelligence Service HQ known as the ‘Circus’, codenamed ‘Gerald’. (I’ve never fathomed why Le Carré chose that name!) The head of the Service known as ‘Control’ and his top henchman Smiley were forced into retirement before they could catch the mole, but now the government have brought Smiley back as former agents have re-surfaced, and they need someone outside the Circus to debrief/interrogate the assets and to ultimately get Gerald. Smiley will discover operations that are off the books, and betrayals going back decades before that will take him back to his encounter with top Russian agent, Karla, and poor Jim Prideaux, left crippled after the previous operation to expose the mole in then Czechoslavakia went belly up. All the Circus heads of department had been given codenames from the children’s rhyme TTS Sailor, Rich man, Poor Man, Beggarman, Thief – Le Carré of course having substituted spy for sailor, Smiley was ‘Beggarman’ – which of them was it?

That’s enough plot! If there are two scenes that stand out from the original TV series for me: one is the flashback to the mid 1950s when Smiley is interrogating Karla played by Patrick Stewart (right) – who never says a word for the entire time he’s on screen; the other is Beryl Reid as Connie Sachs, the well-lubricated researcher and adviser to Control who had also been forced out of the Circus. When Smiley goes to visit her, it plays out exactly as in the novel:

‘George Smiley,’ she cried, with a shy trailing laugh as she drew him into the house. ‘Why you lovely darling man. I thought you were selling me a Hoover bless you and all the time it’s George.’

One of our book group members commented that it was a very male novel, and yes, with the exception of cameos from Connie, Russian agent Irina in one of the flashbacks, and Smiley’s estranged wife Anne – this novel is completely full of middle-aged white men. There is a suggestion that one or two of the characters are gay, although this not expounded upon. In the film, Smiley’s helpmate, Peter Gwillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch has a noted confessional scene with Oldman, whereas in the book, Gwillam is bedding one of the secretaries in Records – but trying not to commit…

I very much enjoy Le Carré’s writing; it is intense and crafted with precision. It’s not totally without humour though, as an exchange between Roy Bland and Smiley shows:

‘You’re an educated sort of swine,’ he announced easily as he sat down again. ‘An artist is a bloke who can hold two fundamentally opposing views and still function: who dreamt that one up?’

‘Scott Fitzgerald’, Smiley replied, thinking for a moment that Bland was proposing to say something about Bill Haydon.

‘Well Fitzgerald knew a thing or two,’ Bland affirmed. […] And I’m definitely functioning, George. As a good socialist I’m going for the money. As a capitalist, I’m sticking with the revolution, because if you can’t beat it spy on it. Don’t look like that, George. It’s the name of the game these days: you scratch my conscience, I’ll drive your Jag, right?’

I got an additional hit of pleasure by reading from my Folio Society edition of this novel, which has wonderfully atmospheric pencil drawings by Tim Laing. The frontispiece (below right) is of Smiley, collar up, trudging up past Victorian villas in South Kensington.

When I was a student at Imperial, I lived for two years in one such villa, which had been converted into more than a dozen bedsits, in Lexham Gardens W8, which is where one of the safe houses in the novel is situated. Smiley’s own home is in another road of such houses further south off the Kings Road (Bywater St – it’s marked on Google Maps as where he lives!), but that terrace in his illustration does look very like one of the Lexham Gardens spurs did when I was there! It all adds to the reading experience.

Source: Own Copy

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12 thoughts on “Book Group Report – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I always enjoy his novels, and must (re)read more. I have a few still to go unread before, but after re-reading TTSS, I’m probably keener to revisit the other Karla novels.

  1. Calmgrove says:

    I’ve copies of the last two Le Carré novels waiting on my shelves, and Emily has a few earlier ones including this – I should consider this for Readers Imbibing Peril after your splendid exposition, Annabel!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve not read any of the last novels either yet, but of course being a fan, have bought copies of them. I wouldn’t have thought of this book as one suitable for RIP, but maybe….

  2. Elle says:

    I tend to find the classic Le Carré plots quite difficult to follow (not the general gist of things but the details—everything feels very unspoken and ’70s), but have very fond memories of watching the Alec Guinness/Ian Richardson series with a high school pal! Such excellent casting, and I’d completely forgotten about Patrick Stewart playing Karla!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It’s OP now, and way back when they offered a print of that particular illustration – but they’ve stopped doing prints, I missed getting a copy, as it would have meant a lot to me.

  3. kimbofo says:

    I should introduce you to my OH who’s obsessed with this particular Le Carre. Reckon he’s watched the most recent film adaptation about a dozen times! We used to live around the corner from Blythe House where it is filmed so that was about the only attraction the film had for me 😆 I’m not a spy genre fan, put off by being forced to read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at school, aged 15. I didn’t understand a damn thing! Sadly, it put me off those kinds of books for life.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      My ex was similarly obsessed, and particularly with the TV series! Luckily having grown up on thrillers it didn’t put me off! I don’t think I got TSWCIFTC first time of reading, but I loved re-reading it some years ago. JLC’s subtleties are difficult for younger readers I think.

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