Don't Skip This: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Remember that summer reading list in high school that you blew off? There were some pretty great titles you skipped and you've spent your adult life hearing references to them. What did you miss? And why are these titles still thrown around today? Are they really that good? Here's your chance to redeem yourself: we're taking a candid look at a lot of these books and building a case for finally picking up that book years later.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Author: John le Carré Genre: Spy thriller Length: Roughly 400 pages, depending on the edition. Difficulty Level: College graduate Selling Point: Searching for a Soviet mole in the Cold War.

The Gist: Back when he was an operative of the Circus (also known as “MI6”), Jim Prideaux was shot by Russian agents in the fiasco called Operation Testify. The mission was such a high-profile disaster that the ailing head of the Circus – known only as “Control” – was fired in disgrace shortly before his death. But the hero of this story is neither Prideaux nor Control.

The protagonist is Control’s longtime protégé, George Smiley, who was also fired in the aftermath of Testify. His time of unemployment doesn’t last long, however, since his old colleagues have discovered the existence of a Soviet mole – codenamed “Gerald” – somewhere in the highest ranks of the Circus. Because Smiley is so intimately connected with the Circus, though technically no longer a part of it, he’s the ideal man to lead an investigation into Gerald’s identity without any of the suspects’ knowing.

Common Misconceptions: Thanks in large part to a certain other British secret agent, the label of “spy thriller” has a lot of connotations. It implies action, gadgets, beautiful women, stealthily breaking into places, etc. In this case, you should check all those expectations at the door.

John le Carré himself was actually a veteran of MI5 and MI6 when he wrote this, so his depiction of the espionage business is rooted quite firmly in reality. This naturally means fewer spontaneous gunfights and more bureaucracy. There isn’t a whole lot of action here, but there’s a ton of talking to sift through.

Smiley himself is the polar opposite of the stereotypical spy. Instead of a young, handsome man who lives for danger, he’s an old and unattractive man who’s been cuckolded by his wife. In fact, his mission is all about interviewing old allies and gathering information about previous events, in order to construct a story that answers the question of “who is Gerald?” As such, Smiley is more like a journalist or perhaps a detective, and definitely not an action hero.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, that ungainly title is derived from a children’s counting rhyme, similar to “eenie meenie.” The full rhyme goes “tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.”

Is it still worth it? The book has an enormous cast of characters, and remembering which is which can be very difficult because of the spotty characterization. Yet remembering them all will be necessary, particularly when tertiary characters disappear for several chapters only to suddenly be mentioned again later. It also doesn’t help that the characters all utilize code names and spy jargon that get sparse definition, if any.

Then there are all the various subplots. Smiley makes it his business to learn more about prior events (Testify, for example), so the reader has to keep up with the constantly revising series of events. This can be a chore, since many of the backstories are told partly through flashback and partly through the characters talking to Smiley. During these times, the book seems to treat the characters as if they exist in the past and present simultaneously, which can get very confusing. Also, there are a select few subplots – such as that of Bill Roach – that are pretty much entirely redundant.

Put simply, this book is as clear as mud. The narration, pacing, and characterization are all designed in such a way that anyone who doesn’t take notes and pay attention will be lost very quickly. It will take multiple readings, a whole ton of effort, and probably a few study guides to figure out who’s situated where and what’s going on.

Where can I find it? How much does it cost? The good news is that bookstores everywhere will be carrying the most recent paperback edition. The bad news is that this 381-page book will cost $16. The eBook edition isn’t much better, at a price of $10.

Amazon is definitely your best bet for this one, where a new copy of the latest edition is currently going for $8.48. They’re also offering used copies of older editions, which are literally going for pennies.

Movie Adaptations: To date, this book has seen two adaptations to visual media. The first came in 1979, when the BBC adapted le Carré’s work into a seven-part miniseries, with Alec Guinness starring as George Smiley.

The second is an upcoming film adaptation, directed by Tomas Let the Right One In Alfredson. Gary Oldman was cast as Smiley, supported by such British acting heavyweights as Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, and Mark Strong.

This latest movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 5, and then debuted internationally over the following months. It just started limited release in the States today.