R.I.P. X: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

tinkerWhen I Googled “what makes a good spy story,” I came across some advice that made it sound so easy (yeah, right). Aside from “a blockbuster concept, flawless structure, and epic narrative drive,” you need:

  • A stunning opening
  • A dynamic protagonist
  • A realistic setting
  • Action
  • Cliffhangers
  • Startling twists

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy might not have a “stunning” opening, but it’s good enough. I found the Cold War setting quite realistic. The aging former super spy hardly makes for a dynamic protagonist—quite the opposite—but he is not meant to be, so I am OK with that. Action? Nope, no action. But I can do without action. What about cliffhangers and startling twists?

I am sure there were some, since it’s about spies and double agents, but I couldn’t tell you for sure. I was too overwhelmed by the 5,000 people in this book to pay attention to cliffhangers and plot twists.

OK, I exaggerate, but during most of the 381 pages all I did was trying to keep track of all the characters. Most of the time, I was unsuccessful. There are too many people in this book—and some of them aren’t even real (book-real, that is). And not only are there too many people, there are also too many names. Names of people, names of places, names of operations, code names, names of people who never existed, names of people who no longer exist, . . . you get the gist. Too many names!

It was on page 174 that I felt the book was done setting up the story and I started to get a handle on the story. (Wow, it took 174 pages to set up the story? Wow, I can’t believe I have forced myself to read 174 pages already.) By page 212, it was back to drudging through the swamp, wondering why I should care about who is on which side and why.

Oooh, did Guillam just get caught snooping in the files? Is this an interrogation? Are they just toying with him? Is this a test? Is this about . . . oh, wait, we’re back to Bill Haydon having an affair with Smiley’s wife. (Aren’t they cousins?) And what is Roy Bland doing here? I thought he was in Russia. No, that was that other guy, what was his name again?

I briefly thought that maybe I didn’t like the book because it was outdated; no Internet, no satellite phones, no e-mail, etc., but that’s not it. I actually enjoyed the descriptions of the old-fashioned way they were working: checking paper files, organizing secret mail drops, and lighting cigarettes to signal the “all clear.” And there were hints of why I have liked Le Carré in the past; notably, his ability to paint a scene with few words. And there was a certain “Englishness” in parts of the book enjoyed. I just wish the story hadn’t been so damn crowded….

Well, I get to tick off a few things:

  1. Read a book for the R.I.P. X Challenge. Check.
  2. Read a book for my TBR Pile Challenge. Check.
  3. Read a book from my Classics Club list. Check.
  4. Read a book that makes me sit on the edge of my chair. NO CHECK. Too bad, that was the most important one.

Can you recommend a good thriller? I don’t want blood and bodies, just good mind-game suspense. Any suggestions?



  1. Unfortunately, all the best thrillers DO have bodies. My feeling about Le Carré is that he tries too hard to be ‘literary’. His books are not exactly literary novels but they are not exactly typical genre crime either.
    You might like to try The Miracle Strain by Michael Cordy, if you don’t shy away from reading controversial subject matter. Reviewers either love it or hate it, and you will know which side you’re on by two or three chapters in. I’m afraid there are bodies however!

  2. Wait. Did you see the recent movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? If not, it’s worth renting! I guess if I had to pick a good thriller — Scott Turow’s 1987 novel Presumed Innocent is a winner.

  3. Oh, I’m sorry this book didn’t work for you! Oddly enough, I’ve never read Le Carre even though I’m a fan of both the BBC TV adaptation and the recent film. The plot is rather complex, though…it’s not the easiest thriller to get to grips with.

  4. This is actually one of my favourite books. I had the same experience as you when I first read it, i.e. the feeling of being a little overwhelmed. But it definitely benefits from a second reading, and watching the movie helps too – it’s pretty close to the book. I feel like every time I read the book or watch the movie I pick up on something new. So much love for both.
    I think the lack of action is what I like about le Carré – it’s all proper sneaking around and seems far more realistic than James Bond (in spy terms). Based on your comments I can see you’ve read le Carré before – have you read The Night Manager? That’s easily my favourite of his, but I do love the entire George Smiley series. I could go on about my love for George Smiley all day, but I won’t 🙂
    I read Black-Eyed Susans a couple of months ago and it was a great psychological thriller – plenty of mind games to be had!

    • I must admit that I am currently very hesitant to consider a second reading for this one. Maybe I will try the movie instead. I completely understand your enthusiasm for George Smiley, because I’ve read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and I really enjoyed that one. That’s why I was extra disappointed that this one didn’t work for me. I’ve also read The Constant Gardner and liked it. Oh well, they can’t all be good. Thanks for your recommendations; I’ll look into The Night Manager and Black-Eyed Susans. I remember your review of it.

      • The movie helped me a lot and everything was a bit clearer when I read the book again. But you still need to focus when watching the movie – miss one thing and it gets away from you a bit.

  5. I often wondered about reading this. One night the most recent film adaptation was on TV. I settled down to watch and was confused in no time and turned off. I’m not sure if I’ll ever read it now.

    • I haven’t seen the film adaption, but my husband said he attempted to watch it and turned it off as well. To be fair, I liked Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I might have to reread that one.

      • For me there is a world of difference between a good spy story and a thriller. You mention The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I feel this is a great and timeless spy story, but not a thriller on the scale of a Jason Bourne yarn. Equally, spy stores in the action genre of Bond et al are separate from the gritty, messy world of espionage which has little to do with fast cars and gadgets but about human frailty and betrayal. Not the best book on the world but Stella Rimmington’s first book Secret Asset does give some insight into a more realistic world of espionage and covert surveillance. She was head of MI5 after all so she should know a thing or two. Sadly she does try to tie everything off too neatly but such are the pressures of popular fiction.

      • You make a good point here, and I didn’t even think of how a spy story is different from a thriller…. It would be hardly fair to compare a Le Carre book with the Jason Bourne stories. I will check out Secret Asset; thanks for the recommendation.

  6. The same thing happens to me when I try to read a thriller – not enough thrills. I guess I’m just not good at picking them out, so I better not recommend any to you. I will come back later, though, to see if anyone else has. 😉
    P.S. Thanks for reading this one for me so that I won’t have to!

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