Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) is the first novel in John  le Carré's "Karla Trilogy" featuring MI6 agent George Smiley battling his KGB counterpart. Here, Smiley is called back – on the sly – from his abrupt and involuntary retirement to unravel a series of botched operations and find the Soviet mole inside the British intelligence service.

The story starts in the middle of the action, when a rogue British agent confesses to an illicit, and perhaps staged, love affair with a Russian spy. Is Irina's report of a high-level mole inside the agency for real? Or clever disinformation planted by Karla to disrupt Britain's espionage efforts? Only Smiley and his covert team can find the answer.

As brilliant as the novel is – and it is brilliant – it is so dense with spy jargon and so intentionally abstruse that the plot is almost impenetrable. Only in the last 50 or so pages to the pieces start to fall together. But fans of Cold War espionage novels will eat it up.


If you would like your review of this book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was followed by The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley's People (1979). The Karla Trilogy was published in an omnibus edition in 1982 called The Quest for Karla.

I wanted to read the book before I saw the new movie, starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth, which I am now particularly excited about.

This also counts as one of my books for the Mt. TBR and Off the Shelf Challenges, as well as one of my pre-identified choices for the TBR Pile Challenge. Since I got my copy of The Quest for Karla from my Grandma in 1983, this may be the book that has sat on my TBR shelf the longest. It's about time I finally read it!


  1. I'm not sure this is for me, but I bet my dad would have loved it. I may give it a try one day.

  2. My brother keeps on pestering me to read This book--sounds like it might be a bit frustrating.

  3. I think I will probably just skip the novel and instead watch the movie.

  4. I really enjoyed The Constant Gardener by le Carré and liked The SPy Who Came in From the Cold that I read last year. Yet, in that one too I did sometimes find it a bit... dense I suppose. I want to enjoy cold war espionage fiction, but I'm not sure if I do. Either way, I do like this author's way of writing so I want to continue reading within the Smiley series. (He turns up in The Spy but only for a bit.)

  5. I haven't read this book myself yet, though I think I might, I did hear another review on it at the book review ( with Elaine Charles, a very good show.

  6. Kathy: It really was excellent -- I didn't mean to scare anyone away!

    Jane: If you just let it flow over you, the frustration goes away. I think the denseness it to create atmosphere more than anything.

    DC: That's a reasonable decision. I wanted to read the book first because it's been on my shelf for so long. But if it hadn't been, I don't know . . .

    Fiona: I have The Spy Who Came In From the Cold on my TBR shelf and am looking forward to it. I really do enjoy Cold War espionage, especially when it was written during the Cold War. But I am still going to take these Le Carre books a little at a time.

    Jack: Thanks for the link. I'll go visit it right now.

  7. I can't say the pieces ever fell together for me. I had no idea what the hell was going on. But I didn't need to, because the prose is frightfully good. Dude can write.

  8. Michael: I confess I had to resort to the wikipedia article to get the details straightened out in my head. ;-) But, wow! He is a great writer. I'll read the rest, even if I have to let the plot flow past.


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