Hello Ordinary Readers! This is the first recap of the Ordinary Times book club for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, covering Part 1 (the first third of the book). I hope we aren’t going too fast for anyone. If we are, please skip down to the comments and let me know. Also, as usual with book club posts, try to avoid spoilering the rest of the book in the comment threads (use the handy-dandy spoiler code, rot13, or some other means of avoiding spoilers, if you need to). Thanks and I hope you are enjoying this as much as me!
A fussy old man, concerned with the money his wife has deducted from accounts, wanders to a bookstore to sell a rare edition in a fit of pique. There, he spots an old work acquaintance outside and slips out, into the arms of… Various interesting characters come and go in this first section of Tinker, Tailor. Terms we are unfamiliar with are used casually. Inside information is the order of the day, indeed, the order of the business.
John le Carré is the nom de plume of David John Moore Cornwell, a former teacher at the posh British school of Eton, a cold warrior and son of a con man. All of which inform this novel. Years as a teacher and spy are obvious at first glance in the novel, but the con man is one of the most interesting things, as the whole novel is shadowed by the ghost of Kim Philby. Indeed, le Carré’s intellegence career came to an end when Philby betrayed the covers of British agents. And in many ways, that is what this is a story about.
To start we have the story of a school teacher, who sets boys to be watchers. Who is this man? Then we have Smiley himself, selling rare books after his wife drained the checking account. Rikki Tarr tells us a lively tale of Hong Kong goings on, but it is told in secret, away from the intelligence officers of the day. For the tale is a rough one, leading to the belief that there is a double agent in the service. Smiley, an ousted agent, is called back to listen to the tale, to find its truth. And we have further tales, the memories of Smiley himself. Looking for old information, a trip to visit Connie, a tutor at Oxford, and the memory of the old service. And old service it is, as a new leadership has taken over the daily running of intelligence.
We are introduced to a variety of people in the course of the first section, from the above mentioned Rikki Tarr and Connie, to Peter Guillam and the other currently serving members of the “circus.” But none are so important to the story as George Smiley, the central character. Smiley has a long and varied career in spying, appearing in le Carré’s first two books, middling detective novels with a slight taste of the spy world. He then has a minor part in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, seemingly a background character, but in the end showing us how devious the secret world is, laying traces of information quite deep. In these books we start to see how deeply buried the activities of the circus are, the cover stories that we have no idea that others are telling about agents, so as to make sure that information is where it is needed. And at the same time rumors and innuendo rule the day, as they are far more accessible than cold truth, and can be traded, bought and sold like stocks.
How does England look at the end of its empire? What motivates these men and women to follow this profession? Why is Prideaux setting watch boys?
So, what are you seeing? What are you picking up?
(Image by danxoneil )