Book Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
(1974) by John Le Carré
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is Le Carré's fictionalization of the Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five spy ring: Upper class Brits who were caught spying for the Soviets in the early 1960's. Le Carré famously blamed Philby for betraying his identity to the Soviets and being directly responsible for his termination from the English intelligence service in 1964.
Tinker is regarded as an enduring classic of the spy-espionage genre. Le Carré is an excellent example of a writer who has emerged from a popular genre to obtain a level of critical acclaim commensurate with the second tier of novelists- those who combine popular and critical success but have failed to win one of the major literary prizes for "serious" literature: A Nobel Prize, a National Book Award, the Booker Prize.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Le Carré's career is it's length. He is still publishing new novels, and he has a very viable brand in popular culture. Witness The Night Manager- based on a more recent novel- being in talk for Emmy nominations. The key to longevity for Le Carré is that he was never exclusively concerned with the Cold War, rather, the Cold War was simply the setting for a set of themes having to do with morality and ethics in the modern world.
The moral ambiguity central to most of his books is largely absent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in favor of a more conventional bad guy who-dun-it scenario. Still, it's clear from the continued vitality of his work that he transcended his time and place. You could say that the world has grown to be more like the world Le Carre portrayed forty years later than it was when his books were published.
The idea that the good guys and the bad guys are morally equivalent is more tenable after then it was during the Cold War. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first of his series of three Karla novels- named after the Soviet spy master who, it is clear, the author admires. Karla makes an actual appearance in Tinker only briefly- held in captivity in India during a low point in his relationship with his own country. Smiley, the protagonist and some-times narrator of Tinker, is shown to be quite the lesser man than Karla in their brief encounter- admitted by Smiley.