Revisiting George Smiley and the British Secret Service

In 1974, Richard Locke reviewed “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” John le Carré’s novel following a spymaster’s pursuit to uncover a Soviet mole in the British secret service, for the Book Review.

There are those who read crime and espionage books for the plot and those who read them for the atmosphere; the former talk of “ingenious puzzles” and take pride in “pure ratiocination”; the latter think themselves more literary, worry about style and characterization, and tend to praise their favorite writers as “real novelists.” Le Carré’s books offer plenty for both kinds of readers.

George Smiley is a pudgy, middle-aged secret agent who seems “breathtakingly ordinary.” He is married to a glamorous, intelligent, aristocratic wife who has run off with one of her many lovers.

Smiley is thus an anti-James Bond, an unheroic, frequently cuckolded secret agent who looks like a shy and miserable clerk in an old London bank. In fact, of course, Smiley is the finest secret agent in the world; his pathetic demeanor conceals a brilliant mind and stout heart.

Le Carré has never presented so much detail about the intelligence Establishment, and he moves easily from past to present, from adventure to research and induction, and keeps one guessing right to the end which of the five top men is the double agent. Smiley has become humanity at its decent English best; the glamour of the Empire has faded, but he quietly carries on.

Read the rest of the review.

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