Book 123: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John Le Carré

John le Carré’s espionage thriller can definitely carry it’s weight, but for once I think I prefer the film to the book. This is the third book in a row (of five) which have absolutely nothing to do with my challenges, but I wanted to read them.

Overall Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy was well written and the story was interesting, but if I hadn’t seen the film I would have had very little idea about what was going on in the story. Le Carré, pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, definitely has a way with words and there were a few turns of phrases which struck me as extremely well written or beautiful, specifically the fourth and sixth quotes below.

This is a very short review, clearly, but I wanted to end it by saying why I thought the film was better than the book. The film took le Carré’s characters and made them real, added the emotion you can tell is there in the book but is hard to see because it is a mostly male character driven book in a hard field where emotions are hidden. The one scene in the film which I believe really shows this is when Guillam forces his male lover to leave because homosexuality was frowned upon (if not illegal at this point) and Guillam needed to be beyond reproach. This was new to the film, but there are similar instances throughout the novel. I did appreciate the openness and sexual fluidity of le Carré’s characters, especially as he wrote this in 1974 just as Thatcher was rising to power and the crackdown on illegal and illicit (homosexual) acts was coming.

Recommendation: If you like suspense/thriller novels check it out it is definitely a classic, but if not, skip it. Although it’s well written and the story is intricate, the pace is slow and I wasn’t impressed.

Opening Line: “The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.”

Closing Line: “The gun, Bill Roach had finally convinced himself, was, after all, a dream.” (Whited Out.)

Additional Quotes from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
“Out of date, perhaps, but who wasn’t these days? Out of date, but loyal to his own time. At a certain moment, after all, every man chooses: will he go forward, will he go back? There was nothing dishonourable in not being blown about by every little modern wind. Better to have worth, to entrench, to be of one’s own generation.” (29)

“‘There are always a dozen reasons for doing nothing,’ Ann liked to say—it was a favourite apologia, indeed, for many of her misdemeanours—’There is only one reason for doing something. And that’s because you want to.’ Or have to?” (89)

“Great, so how do you spot a reservation when thirty teenage butterflies are mating in your stomach and the sweat is like a secret rain inside your shirt? Never, he swore, never had he had it this bad.” (196)

“Sitting is an eloquent business; any actor will tell you that. We sit according to our natures. We sprawl and straddle, we rest like boxers between rounds, we fidget, perch, cross and uncross our legs, lose patience, lose endurance.” (237)

“Roy Bland was at Leeds University talent-spotting, said Sam, and not available.” (269)

“There are moments that are made up of too much stuff for them to be lived at the time they occur.” (398)


11 thoughts on “Book 123: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John Le Carré”

  1. Interestingly, I wondered if the movie would have been comprehensible to someone who hadn’t read the book, but from both your responce and my wife’s it clearly was.

    As for myself, while I liked the film, I think I preferred the book in part because of its tendency to wallow. I felt that, more than anything, mirrored the nature of Smiley’s research; it followed the turns and dead ends of the tale. I wonder if it’s a reflection of what medium you saw first.

    I wonder, have you seen the Alec Guiness version of the book?


    1. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like it. It definitely felt a bit wallowy, but that definitely added to it by providing Smiley with a personality (if a bit of a wallowy one).

      I haven’t seen the Alec Guiness version. I’m not sure I would go out of my way to watch it, but I wouldn’t say no if someone said they wanted to.


      1. It was my favorite, but of course that is how I was introduced to LeCarre in the first place.

        I can well and imagine it felt wallowy… and yes, Smiley is a bit of a wallowy person. Having said that, Oldman’s portrayal of him was brilliant… definetely a new take, but one that still captured Smiley very well.

        This was a really solid review, by the way, Well stated in a few words, and great quotes.


  2. If ever you are inclined to read the rest of the Smiley-Karla trilogy, do. As a whole, it’s a great look into the collapse of the Cold War as they knew it. And interpersonal relationships, etc. I think that’s why I like Le Carre so much, the way he portrays relationships.

    Good and fair review!


    1. I definitely thought about it when I went into the novel, but I guess I’m sort of indifferent. I’ve never been a huge fan of that era, but it does expand my horizons by reading it, so who knows.


      1. As you didn’t particularly love Tinker Tailor, it isn’t something to rush into reading. Honourable Schoolboy is even slower going.


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