‘…Mr George Smiley was not naturally equipped for hurrying in the rain, least of all at dead of night…
Small, podgy and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.’
Control, the commander of the Circus (the highest level of British Intelligence) is eased out of his position and dies not long afterwards. His second in command, George Smiley, is later forced out into retirement after a series of operational disasters and the Circus is restructured.
‘After a lifetime of living by his wits and his considerable memory, he had given himself full-time to the profession of forgetting.’
But Peter Guillam, a former colleague whose role in the Circus has been curtailed since the restructure, has evidence that Circus has been infiltrated by a mole over a period of decades. He recruits Smiley to ‘spy on the spies.’
As Smiley works to uncover this betrayal in the upper echelons of the organisation, he also faces a betrayal in his personal life.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was the first Cold War novel by John le Carré that I’d read (see my review in this post).
* Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, was the second. The two books have similarities and share one or two characters but they both may be read as stand alone titles.
Betrayal is a dominant theme in both books, but it is more fully explored in the second.
Le Carré writes superbly and his plots are complex. Both novels are psychological thrillers and somewhat dark, which is not surprising for books about espionage.
Normally I’m only attracted to softer vintage espionage – authors such as John Buchan and Helen MacInnes – but le Carré sucked me in with his masterful exploration of character. He made me care about some of these characters. People such as Smiley and Bill Roach, the new boy at school who was considered dull, if not actually deficient, and blamed himself for the break-up of his parent’s marriage; Jim Prideaux, the enigmatic hunchbacked teacher who arrived at the school as a temporary replacement:
‘Bill had a feeling he could not describe that Jim lived so precariously on the world’s surface that he might at any time fall into a void; for he feared that Jim was like himself, without a natural gravity to hold him on.’
And Peter Guillam, who in a moment feels not only betrayed but orphaned by the man who inspired him most:
‘His butchered agents in Morocco, his exile to Brixton, the daily frustration of his efforts as daily he grew older and youth slipped through his fingers; the drabness that was closing round him; the truncation of his power to love, enjoy and laugh; the constant erosion of the plain, heroic standards he wished to live by…
His suspicions, his resentments for so long turned outwards on the real world – on his women, his attempted loves – now swung upon the Circus and the failed magic which had formed his faith.’
This is an excellent, gritty read but I sometimes felt out of my depth with the complexity of the plot, although I found with both of le Carré’s books that once I have the whole picture at the end of the book it helps me untangle some of the threads and I can then skip back to sections where I got a little lost and work things out.
* When a movie was made of the book in 2011, the commas were removed for the film title.