100 novels: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


I will preface this review by noting that I am, in fact, a massive John le Carré fan. I think he is an expert writer, an absolute master of suspense, of drawing you into a character and making you root for them whilst at the same time showing you their flaws. He writes about political intrigue, intelligence work, and violence that feels realistic enough to make you genuinely angry and sad at the world.

With that said, I’m not sure why the Telgraph picked Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy as the ‘greatest’ of his books. True: it features his infamous Smiley, and true, it fictionalises real events. On the other hand it is a dense, paranoid and complicated web of stories that is easy to lose the thread of. I had read it before, and yet I still found myself backtracking to try and remember who the different people were and how they related to each other. On the one hand this is definitely ambitious storytelling – a narrative pieced together from flashbacks, old files, witness statements, and the drifting memories of various spies. We open and close with Jim Prideaux, whose near-fatal mission is the heart of the story and yet he hardly figures elsewhere.

On the other hand it’s a tough read, without a big payoff at the end. It focuses heavily on well-educated white men. I found it hard to identify with any of the characters, and the cold war is a distant threat at this point.

My favourite le Carré book is The Mission Song,  which is far more modern, more fluidly written, and has a more approachable protagonist. I feel that Carré is at his best when writing modern novels that tackle the politics and corruption occurring today. He is not afraid to go head first into controversial topics, and at the end of The Mission Song I was in tears. You can tell that le Carré outrage over the injustice of what is happening in Africa is absolutely genuine. With his other books it is easy to dismiss the cold war bickering as ‘the bad old days’, whereas his modern novels do a great job of lighting a fire-cracker under your arse and making you want to change what is happening today.

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