George Smiley, a retired British spy, is brought back into service to identify a mole that has been passing information to the Russian agent Karla. The mole’s existence was previously suspected by the former head of the ‘Circus’ (spy HQ), Control, before he was removed from his post after a scandal.
It is Smiley’s job to put the pieces together. How many of his former colleagues can he trust? How many others, removed from service at the same time as him, now hold keys to the puzzle? How much did Control know – and was it this knowledge that ultimately led to his downfall?
Smiley is the opposite of the James Bond style of spy. Short, fat, and middle-aged, with an adulterous wife to boot, he is understated, persistent, and cautious. Yet he is personable enough to encourage others to tell him their stories – and the pieces of the puzzle finally come together.
Where did I get hold of the book?
I spotted that this one was available in my local university library, so I headed there on my way to take part in a Calon Talks Books radio show. Frustratingly, I think the account I’d previously used had been an old staff account which had never been deleted (I used to work there) – but since I’d last taken a book out they’d had a purge, so I was no longer on the system!
Fortunately, Paul (Calon Talks Books presenter) emerged from his office at the very time I was standing by the desk, so he put the book on his card and off we trotted to the radio studio. I now need to make sure I return it in time, otherwise he’ll get a fine… which wouldn’t be very fair! So I’m heading back to the library tomorrow to return the book and (hopefully) get a new external borrower’s account set up.
- Find the book in a library near you.
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
What did I learn from it?
I’d like to say that I learned a lot about the secret services; but, given that the book was written in the pre-internet era, I imagine that their procedures have changed beyond recognition! Talk of microdots, dead letter boxes, and clandestine radio stations seems rather quaint now. I wonder if any of the old techniques are still used alongside modern technology, or has it all completely shifted? How many of the old attitudes have remained, and what has had to change with the times?
The other main difference between the world portrayed in the book and our current era is the nature of the ‘enemy’. The action takes place at the height of the Cold War, and it is the Russians (‘Moscow Centre’) who are, to use a contemporary phrase, the ‘Big Bad’ du jour. The ‘war on terror’ has yet to be dreamed up; this is a bipartisan world of large structures; and there are no rogue individuals acting for a personal cause (except within the established structures). Identifiable antagonists behave in (almost) expected ways: it is a world both semi-familiar and totally unknown.
How did it make me see the world differently?
Regardless of the changes in technology and world order mentioned above, the story still intrigues as an in-depth look at the operations of the secret services. This is an underground world, hidden from the rest of us – and yet, perhaps now more than ever, we have become aware of its workings through news stories such as that of Edward Snowden.
I’ve not been in the habit of following the details of such cases, but the fascination I felt on reading this book has made me more conscious of this secret underworld. In particular, for this ex-librarian, it shines a new light on certain job adverts I might previously have looked at: Information Specialists at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). I can’t help but think of the uses to which my kind of skills and knowledge could be put in those circumstances – and my gut tells me I’m happier on the outside than on the inside.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
Oddly, the practical difference this book has made to my life isn’t to do with keeping secrets, challenging authority, or hunting down answers. It might even seem a little facetious to some…
Just before reading the book, I posted a picture of my cat on Facebook. Another reader commented how mysterious she seemed, ‘like Mata Hari’. I did some verbal tweaking and came up with the more feline-appropriate name ‘Cata Hari’. And this was the final piece in a puzzle of my own that I’ve been mulling over for some time: nothing as exciting as tracking down a mole (a mole wouldn’t last long faced with Pasha), but I’ve been looking for a theme to give to pictures I post of her online. And so now she has her new identity, her ‘alter ego’ – and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has furnished me with a range of ideas for situations she could get into, adventures she could go on, conversations she could have…
I apologise to anyone who was hoping for a serious exposé of librarians in the security services. These blog posts really are intended to feature ‘real life’ applications of the books I read; and, as such, I’m unlikely to dwell on issues that have no practical relevance to my life, no matter what level of national importance they might have. In the end, here, a random connection was made, my creativity was fired up, and my cat was the unexpected beneficiary.
If your curiosity has been tickled, take a look at Pasha’s latest blog post where she describes her transformation into Cata Hari…
Over to you…
Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?
If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?
Please share in the comments below!