Review – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Novel)

Movies are great motivators to read.

For me, I’m always interested in reading a book before I see a movie. I believe that the book is always better than the movie, although I will grant exceptions to the rule (The Princess Bride is one that comes to mind). Unfortunately, I usually only hear about the book after I’ve seen the movie.

Just before I went to London this summer, I heard about a little spy movie called Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

I saw the trailer – it looked awesome. I saw the cast list – it looked awesome. I googled it and discovered it was a book.

And a BBC miniseries in 1979.

And a BBC Radio 4 series in 1988.

And then again on BBC Radio 4 in 2009.

Seeing as the book was released in 1974 and I was born in 1986, I’m not going to berate myself for never having heard of it or its author, John le Carré, before. (I thought maybe it was because I was an American, but I’ve since heard Americans talk familiarly about le Carré, so I’m going with the “I’m too young to remember this; its you old folks’ fault for not telling me about it sooner” defense.)

I got to London, and during my first week, my host family was totally hyping it up for me by telling me about the television show.

And then there were the posters.

I’d be heading off to school on the tube, and as I threaded my way through the corridors, changing lines and stations, Gary Oldman would watch me pass. Walking past the same poster every day is bound to make you just the littlest bit intrigued.

The day before my course ended, I treated myself to a much desired and well-earned trip to the bookstore. I left Waterstones at Holborn with three books, one of which was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

I started reading it about 8 minutes later as I boarded a train on the Central Line and headed home.

By the time I had gotten to my final station, I was quite engrossed.

The facts are these: British intelligence. Cold War. Russians. Mole.

I’d say that’s enough to be absolutely fascinating, don’t you?

I mean, I’m a total Anglophile, but I’m also a bit of a Russophile. And I’m fascinated by the Soviet Union and Cold war and –

And there was the whole Anna Chapman–thing that happened last summer. It’s nice to know there’s still some good ol’ fashioned spying going on behind the scenes, isn’t there?

(I wonder if Anna Chapman’s in the film…)

Okay, this introduction is too long. Cut to the chase, Em.

Got it.

And, just because I have a feeling I won’t be able to help myself, in this blog,

“Spoilers, sweetie.”

Cue the review.

Title: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Author: John le Carré


The Circus has already suffered a bad defeat, and the result was two bullets in a man’s back. But a bigger threat still exists. The legendary George Smiley is recruited to root out a high-level mole of thirty years’ standing – though to find him means spying on the spies.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is brilliant and ceaselessly compelling, pitting Smiley against his Cold War rival, Karla, in one of the greatest struggles in all fiction.

Thus sayeth the back of my copy.


Pages: 422
Parts: 3
Chapters: 38

Tinker, Tailor,
Soldier, Sailor,
Rich Man, Poor Man,
Beggar Man, Thief.


That’s the word that seems to best sum up TTSS. Complex works well, too. Dark. Confusing, at times.

The basic plot – as spoiler free as I can make it – is that the Soviets have placed a mole within the British intelligence (referred to as the Circus), and in order to find out who it is, the spies have to spy on the spies. It’s actually quite a simple plot line, but what makes the story intriguing are the characters involved. Their interactions and the layers of their relationships with each other are conveyed subtly but are by no means shallow.

There are four characters that le Carré does well to develop during the course of the story.

Jim Prideaux

We’re first introduced to Jim Prideaux. The story starts in the middle of the plot, and the beginning is revealed through flashbacks and different characters sharing their experiences. Prideaux has recently arrived to work as a teacher at one of those iconic British all-male boarding schools that seem to be both adored and abhorred by the more posh society of the Western world. In fact, it’s this school that I think (personal opinion) sums up what the novel is about: trust and betrayal.

Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux

Being a girl and a middle-class American, I do not even pretend to understand the culture of the private school. (Well, we call them private schools in America – they’re public schools in England, though.) To be honest, it seems to be such an oppressive and traumatizing institution that I can’t imagine why any mother would send her son to one, nor why any boy would want to go.

Prideaux, the school, and the young student he befriends, Bill “Jumbo” Roach, keep the story rooted. le Carré periodically brings the reader back to the school and gives us chapters of small events that seem to be trivial yet convey just how involved in the events of the story Prideaux actually is. Seeing the effects of what is going on through the eyes of Roach provide an almost innocence view point for the reader to gaze through, allowing Prideaux and Roach’s mutual trust to grow deep. It also allows the reader to understand just how deeply Prideaux has been hurt. For in the end, what the story reveals is that a double agent doesn’t just betray his country and his colleagues, he betrays the people who love him.

George Smiley

The second character that le Carré focuses on is George Smiley. Smiley is le Carré’s trademark, having appeared in many of le Carré’s novels, either as the protagonist as here or as a supporting character.

Gary Oldman as George Smiley

Smiley is – well, not so smiley, actually. He’s been forced into retirement, his wife’s left him, and he’s pretty miserable. He’s called out of retirement when it becomes clear to MI6 that there is a mole in their system. Even though it is revealed that he is a suspect, Smiley is tasked with finding the mole and bringing him down.

While he’s masterful as a secret agent, he’s not what we’ve come to expect of spies: he’s no James Bond or even Jason Bourne. Smiley is old, a bit fat, and more comfortable with a beaurocratic approach to spying than to go in with guns blazing.

As a spy, he’s quite good. As a normal human being, he’s a bit pants. (I love that expression… sorry, just a bit English slang I picked up in London.)

When it comes to trust and betrayal, goodness, Smiley’s used to it. He’s incredibly faithful to his very unfaithful wife, Ann, and she provides an odd sort of stability to his character, even though she’s absent in the story. In fact, it seems that Smiley is more comfortable in his relationship with his wife when they’re separated and everyone knows she’s got a string of lovers then when they’re pretending to be the happy couple. He’s accepted her promiscuity as a part of who she is, and he still loves her in spite of it.

Peter Guillam

Of all the characters, I thought Guillam was the most interesting because he gets to do all the fun stuff. He’s not quite as high in the Circus’ leadership, but he is head of the Scalphunters, a division that oversaw things like, oh, blackmail and kidnappings, and the odd assassination. His job has recently become rather tedious as the new administration has put him on the bench. It’s one of his men, Ricki Tarr, who first brings news of a mole, and Guillam has to act against his colleagues within the system to help Smiley find the traitor.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam

Guillam is also a bit of a sad character – really, le Carré’s characters are rather depressing. He’s younger than Smiley and is described as being rather handsome and a ladies’ man. He drives a Porsche. He’s rather cool. However, it becomes evident that this mission has severe effects on him. He begins to distrust everyone, including his girlfriend, and he is disturbed by how personally invested he is in what’s going on. When it is revealed who the mole is, Guillam – of all the characters – is the most, ahem, expressive in his shock, anger, and disappointment.

I think that’s why I like him, actually. He’s not as stuffy and reserved as the others, but he doesn’t allow his emotions to detract from his job. While Smiley’s all quiet and calm, and Prideaux moping, Guillam doesn’t hold his anger back.

Especially when he’s having to deal with

Ricki Tarr

Okay, so Tom Hardy plays Ricki Tarr in the upcoming movie. Seriously, guys, that’s spectacular casting right there. I knew Hardy was in the movie, but I wasn’t sure who his character was, but reading the book made it obvious. I wasn’t surprised at all when I checked

Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr

Ricki Tarr is a wild card. He’s the one who first discovers there’s a mole because he ends up having an affair with with the wife of a Russian agent. Compared to the other characters, he’s a loose cannon, and Guillam rather hates him.

Plus, he’s in love with his Russian lover, and he’s doing this to save her. He gets quite sappy at times, which is both annoying and humorous.

He’s quite fun to read.


I really enjoyed the story, but there were times when I rather wished it was more James Bond-ish. Especially when it’s 5 a.m. and I’m sitting in the Heathrow airport with nothing else to do. It’s not really that it’s slow, it’s just a different approach than I’m used to or that I was expecting. I actually like the author’s style – it seems more realistic than what you normally see, especially with James Bond.

Having said that, the author was a spy himself, both with MI5 and MI6. According to Wikipedia (yes, Wikipedia), le Carré (whose real name is David Cornwell) “left the service in 1964 to work full-time as the novelist ‘John le Carré’ – ‘John the Square’, in French. His intelligence officer career was ended by the betrayal of the covers of British agents to the KGB by Kim Philby, a British double agent (of the Cambridge Five).”* It is believed that this experience and Philby heavily influenced TTSS.

(Warning: If you go to Wikipedia, bear in mind the very next sentence after the one quoted above will spoil the entire novel.)

I think that the novel is very good, but if you’re expecting high-speed car chases and machine guns and bombs, then you’ll be disappointed.

If your interested in a detailed, realistic, and very intellectual spy thriller, you’ll enjoy this.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

1 star – Avoid

2 stars – Wait for the movie

3 stars – Borrow from a friend or library

4 stars – Worth your money

5 stars – This book will change your life

Audience Level Rating
PG-13 for violence, thematic elements, and references to sexual activity

The Karla Trilogy: Book 1 – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Book 2 – The Honorable Schoolboy, Book 3 – Smiley’s People

Thoughts on the Upcoming Film:

The film debuts today in the UK (September 16), and on December 9 in the USA.

Whatever you do, do not read any article about this movie by the BBC. They spoil everything.

Also, the book reveals that one character is bisexual and that another might be gay. However, neither of these characters was Peter Guillam, yet Benedict Cumberbatch has commented that in the film Guillam is gay and in love with one of the others. Having read the book, I can see how they might get away with spinning it like that, but it seems like a rather unnecessary change. It’s gratuitous. The character of Guillam is complex enough without having to add in the 1970s attitude towards homosexuality.

Oh, and the fact that in the book he’s constantly thinking about his girlfriend Camilla also makes the change illogical.

Guillam is supposed to be sexy and rather dashing and very, very straight.

Now I’m wondering what else did they change?

Uk Trailer

The US trailer gives a lot more information, but if you want to see it, click here.


* “John le Carré.” Wikipedia. N.p., 11 Sept 2011. Web. 15 Sep 2011.é


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