‘Mr George Smiley was not naturally equipped for hurrying in the rain … Small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth… For reasons of vanity he wore no hat, believing rightly that hats made him ridiculous.’
George Smiley looks nothing like a spy. But in his day, he was right-hand man to ‘Control’, head of the ‘Circus’ – codeword for British Intelligence. Forced into early retirement, Smiley is prepared for a quiet life of academic obscurity, until the long arm of the Circus pulls him back into the game. One of the highest-ranking officials in the Service is a Russian mole implanted decades ago, and Smiley’s mission is to identify the traitor. In the chess game of wits that follows, he comes face to face with old enemies, unsolved mysteries and his own past.
Like Graham Greene, John le Carré transcends the spy genre, writing novels that also rank among the most critically acclaimed fiction of the late 20th century. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he perfectly evokes the Cold War, a conflict that has a language all of its own: in the jargon of espionage we encounter ‘scalphunters’ and ‘pavement artists’, ‘firemen’ and ‘lamplighters’, as loyalties shift and the rivalry intensifies between the Circus and its counterpart in Washington. This is no one-dimensional thriller, but a subtle, gripping novel that derives suspense from moral complexity and psychological subtlety. Its spies are individuals caught in a web of international intrigue, from Smiley himself, recalling his days as an agent ‘living with terror in his mouth, naked to every stranger’s glance’, to a supply teacher in a West Country prep school, ‘obeying orders and forgetting’ – both human casualties of a dangerous profession.
First published in 1974, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy stands out as one of the finest espionage novels ever written, memorably adapted by the BBC to international acclaim. This Folio Society edition is illustrated by Tim Laing, whose atmospheric pencil drawings brilliantly portray le Carré’s shadowy world.