Jim Prideaux arrives at a minor boys preparatory school having been supplied by an agency to supply teaching to replace a deceased staff member. A bit of an eccentric chap, he arrives with a beat up car and beat up camper, and takes up residency in the one corner of the campus with an air of mystery about it. He has a shoulder injury that keeps his right should unnaturally elevated. And he complements Bill Roach, a new kid and a bit of a loaner, on being a good watcher, something that Prideaux seems to value.
George Smiley, a nondescript Englishman living in London, recently retired by the “Circus” (that is, the British intelligence agency) in an internal coup, has a bad day dealing with his wife Ann leaving. He arrives home to find that the wood chips in his door have been undisturbed, but on opening it finds a dry umbrella (it rained that evening), and reasons that Peter Guillam must be waiting for him, as it must be someone familiar with his signature and able to replace the small chips after closing the door. Guillam, a former colleague, and still at the Circus, motors him over to house of the Lacon, a senior member of the Ministry overseeing the Circus. There with them is a Tarr, an agent that Smiley had trained, with information from a recent operation in Hong Kong where he went AWOL, revealing concrete evidence that the Russian intelligence agency has a highly-placed mole at the Circus. Smiley had raised this possibility prior to his departure and was dismissed as paranoid, but now Lacon requests him to investigate.
He holes up at a cheap hotel, and studies documents he requests from Lacon, who brings them over in the evening and returns them to the department safe before morning begins. He methodically investigates leadership at the Circus, realizing that he is following the same trail that Control was following shortly before he died. Control had been old, and had seemed to be going daft towards the end, but Smiley realizes that he realized that he could not trust five of his top people (including Smiley) because one of them was a mole.
Control sent out Prideaux to Czechoslovakia to “buy” information from a top general who had grown disenchanted with the regime and wanted to inform them of who exactly the mole was. The operation was a disaster. Prideaux was shot in the back and all the operatives in Czechoslovakia were killed. At the same time, Source Merlin, a Russian double-agent was producing fantastic results for project Witchcraft, lead by Percy Alleline who was angling for the top job. Control was removed and Alleline got the top job.
Source Merlin appeared to be Polyakov, code name for the cultural attaché at the Russian Embassy. But Merlin had a supernatural ability to travel quickly around Europe, and was revealed to be multiple sources and Merlin the collator. Alleline induces Treasury to buy an expensive house in London for use as a safe-house for handling the Russian double-agent, keeping it off the books and in a separate account. After this Merlin suddenly develops a personality, sometimes wanting more money, sometimes refusing to cooperate, etc.
Smiley visits operatives in London involved with the operation, and finally Prideaux, who sensed that he was being watched and had assembled his gun (much to the terror of Roach, who had curiously and clandestinely watched him dig up a pipe-wrench from the ground, disassemble it into pen-caps, which became pieces of the gun). Control had sent out most of the five (including Smiley) on European assignments while the Prideaux affair happened. No one except Prideaux knew that it was taking place. It seems that the general did not attend the meeting, it was not the Czechs but the Russians who intercepted him, and it was done on a grand scale with helicopters, lights, cameras, and machine guns in ambush. He was interrogated by Karla, the head of Russian intelligence, who already seemed to know everything. Eventually he was returned to the U.K.
Smiley discovered one anomaly in the stories. Prideaux had attempted to contact Smiley before the operation, partly because Bill Haydon was out of the country. But one of the minor operatives, whom Control had requested replace one of the regulars to work the weekend shift, the weekend of the operation. When messages lit up about the operation going badly, he attempted to contact the five top people, but they were all out of the country. Except for Bill Haydon, whom was with Smiley’s wife Ann.
It was sort of an open secret that Haydon was sleeping with Ann, and people were somewhat embarrassed when the events Smiley asked them to relate required them to mention it. Ann’s repeated infidelity was something that Smiley himself had unwittingly informed Karla of, some years ago, when he had tried—unsuccessfully—to convince Karla to defect to the West. The present infidelity at the time was current and painful enough that Smiley’s persuasion tactic revealed that he was unknowingly having a conversation himself.
Smiley has Toby, Polyakov’s handler in the Circus, setup a crash meeting, and preps the safe-house. Polyakov comes in, then Haydon; they talk until there is enough evidence and then Smiley, Guillam and Lacon bust them. Smiley has Lacon negotiate with the Russions for Haydon in exchange for the lives of the operatives that Haydon has informed the Russians of (although obviously they will be of no further professional use). Haydon does not talk much, despite Smiley being an expert interrogator, but does give some half-coherent ideological reasons why the English system is morally bankrupt. He has Smiley deliver a check to his girlfriend. But just before Haydon is to leave, Prideaux slips in and breaks his neck.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a gripping novel, once you get past the confusion of the first chapters which start off rather slow and grim and confusing with all kinds of confusing jargon and no context. (Perhaps this is less confusing if you’ve read some of Le Carré's previous novels.) The introduction informs us that original idea was telling the story through flashbacks, but apparently the investigative method worked a lot better. A clearer picture starts to emerge (although the characters’ lives remain grim) slowly, and we slowly start to understand what some of the jargon means as we get more context of the personal dynamics within the department and the how the department conducts operations.
The constant use of jargon adds a lot to the book. Part of this is because it removes a lot of context at the beginning, because the jargon makes everything a bit like reading a foreign language. (Or British slang, for that matter.) But it also lends a strong sense of reality, because every profession has jargon, and it would stand to reason that spies would have very pressing reasons to ensure that only the right people understand what they are saying. In the introduction Le Carré notes that he created the jargon, but that it has since been partially adopted in some circles (presumably not actual intelligence agencies).
Everyone’s personal life seems to be a disaster. Almost all of the foreign agents we learn about are dead, Prideaux was shot in the back and is paranoid. Smiley’s wife Ann had a string of infidelities but would come back and give him an expensive gift, but Haydon seemed the last straw. Operatives on an assignment tended to sleep with women to relieve stress when assignments became high-pressure. Guillam was known to sleep around, and his present girl was twenty (he was forty), and he had taken a chance on asking her to sleep with him because she was alone in a corner at a party. It turns out that she was a double-agent, too—she is married to her flute teacher and passing herself off as unmarried. It seems that Le Carré is presenting this as a fact of life in general, not necessarily a consequence of a life lived in secret and with random assignments abroad, as the book ends on a bit of a high note: after Guillam confronts Camille, she admits she is what he thinks (always a very frank one, that) and leaves, but she returns after a couple of days—which Guillam accounts for the security of her not needing to live a lie. So the one “success” of the book is a relationship founded completely on sex, and with a girl who is young, clearly immature, already married (but presumably unhappy), and apparently unable to either divorce her husband or choose him. Not the kind of relationships anyone would want unless they are just trying use sex to numb their pain. At least he is tasteful about it: the quality of the relationships, like everything else in the book, is very vivid, but the actual activities are merely assumed and not spelled out in X-rated detail like is common in more recent books.
I read this book because I saw that Le Carré had died, and I remember my mom had read this book, as the title is memorable (apparently it comes from a children’s counting rhyme), and I was in the mood for a Cold War spy story. I expected a “get information through a heist”, Mission Impossible sort of movie, but it was pretty clear early on that this was not that. Instead, it is a sort of retrospective almost, looking back on events that are recent enough for the principals to have clear memories of, but removed enough that people have some perspective (limited by the very small context they usually had). Mainly it comes off as a psychological investigation of people’s motives and emotions, although the text is more of a mystery where Smiley pieces together the facts, and then tries on various stories to find which ones fit best, sort of Sherlock Holmes style. And like Holmes, we are only privy to Smiley’s actions, factual memories, and his thoughts about Ann; we are not shown his thought process.
This is an engaging book, and well-written. The characters are rich, dynamic, emotional, and feel very real. The world, likewise is very real, and not a posh James Bond world, but a gritty world such as gritty, clandestine, emotional, secretive spies would believably inhabit. The narrative keeps a regular pace of revelation through growing context. The reader’s lack of understanding jargon and the departmental workings makes it difficult to see the pivotal pieces of information, but this is a mystery, not a puzzle, and while convention dictates that the information required for a solution be available, a mystery is very much like a movie, where you just experience everything until you arrive at the end.
The book has a quality to it that feels like it likely had a large influence on the genre. My experience of the spy genre is limited mostly to James Bond and Mission Impossible, and while the latter feels like it has no influences, the Mission Impossible movies strike me as reminiscent of this book. The book feels like it mimics reality—presumably the reality of spying looks different but it feels like spying would involve qualitatively similar sorts of things. (Whether or not this impression is correct, it is how it feels.) Contrast with James Bond, which, while fun, it feels like none of the characters would actually make those choices in real life.
If you are looking for a clean spy fantasy (albeit with salacious unclean bits thrown in), James Bond is probably the way to go. But if you are looking for a spy mystery in the normal gritty world, Le Carré has cooked up a complex noodle soup that requires an expert unraveler.