“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”An Intellectual Spy ThrillerReviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Back in the ’70s I managed a magazine based in London called Encounter. It had been started up by the CIA and I still saw their footprints around the office.
When I complimented the managing editor on the beautiful vase of flowers on her desk, she replied, “Yes, I bought them myself.” Then she paused to add, “It used to be part of the budget that the company bought us flowers every week. You know, the CIA took much better care of us than you do.”
Later I learned that the editor in chief was a CIA agent and the oh-so-British general manager served as liaison with Langley.
Spies among us.
That’s the subject of John le Carré’s novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” And now it’s been made into a movie starring Gary Oldman as Le Carré’s famous MI6 agent George Smiley. It’s playing this week at the Tropic Cinema.
Time Magazine has called Le Carré “the grand master of the modern literary thriller.” And that’s true. But not a thriller in the wham-bam non-stop action of the Bourne Identity books (and movies). More an intellectual thriller.
Here George Smiley’s called out of retirement to uncover a Soviet mole within the ranks of MI6 itself.
A plausible plot, in that Russian double agents have been known to infiltrate British Intelligence in the past – Kim Philby being the most notorious among them.
John le Carré (who is actually a former British spy named David Cornwell) remembers the time he refused to meet with Kim Philby. “I couldn’t possibly have shook his hand,’ he says. “It was drenched in blood. It would have been repulsive. Lord knows how many agents Philby betrayed.”
Philby had his own agenda for the proposed meeting. “Astonishingly, I think he hoped I might write his biography. It’s the ludicrous sort of fantasy he would have entertained.”
Instead, Cornwell takes those old memories, adds a dash of imagination, and wraps them up in a well-thought-out plot that’s beautifully written.
In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” he tells the story of Smiley’s search for a mole within the Circus (as he calls MI6), a high-ranking agent planted by Soviet spymaster Karla. He has four suspects – codenamed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Poorman. These four colleagues have been swapping a KGB agent worthless information for valuable material known as Witchcraft.
Aiding Smiley is Jim Prideaux, a British agent who was shot and captured by the Soviets while trying to buy information from a greedy Hungarian general. Angry over being betrayed by the mole, Prideaux wants more than an arrest.
The story is based on the real-life Cambridge Five of the ’50s and ’60s, KGB double agents who infiltrated Britain’s SIS.
In this movie version, Gary Oldman takes on the world-weary role of George Smiley. This is a long-overdue star turn for Oldman, an often overlooked actor who exhibits “the quiet intensity and intelligence that’s needed” for a taciturn spy like Smiley.
He’s joined by Oscar-winner Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, a British agent under suspicion. And Mark Strong as Smiley’s embittered chum Prideaux.
Directed by Swedish-born Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), this story of a British spy was financed by France’s StudioCanal. And it’s Alfredson’s first English-language film.
Le Carré himself is almost as interesting as his characters. The 80-year-old author taught at Eton before joining the British Foreign Service (1959 to 1964), first serving as Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn and later as Political Consul in Hamburg. He started writing spy novels in 1961, and since then has published some twenty-two titles.
He says, “In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence.”
He adds, “Apart from spying, I have in my time sold bath towels, got divorced, washed elephants, run away from school, decimated a flock of Welsh sheep with a twenty-five pound shell because I was too stupid to understand the gunnery officer’s instructions, taught children in a special school.”
Typically, Le Carré’s spies are everyday folk put into impossible positions. And George Smiley is his everyman. We learn that Smiley’s is not a black-and-white world. It’s one filled with shadowy moral ambiguity.
Authentic? You bet. Le Carré’s spy novels were actually required reading for the KGB.