Genre: Spy Fiction
Narrative Style: Third person from multiple viewpoints. Non-chronological.
Synopsis: There is a mole in the upper levels of the British intelligence service. It is clear that it is one of a small group of men, currently in charge of the Circus (MI6). But which one. George Smiley, recently retired and so outside of the service, is given the job of investigating.
Time on shelf: Not long. I bought this not long after Le Carre died. I haven’t read much spy fiction and what I had read I didn’t love. (The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming and The Swimmer by Joakim Zander, for example.) They seemed to turn on acts of immense stupidity or the opposite – the narrator having so much knowledge that it is almost superhuman. Neither option is much fun. However, Le Carre is described as a master of the art so I thought if I was ever going to like this genre, this was a good place to start.
From the start of this novel, Le Carre’s skill as a writer is apparent. The opening line (The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.) throws you straight into the story. You are in the middle of something that is already in full flow and you have no idea what is going on. The narrative continues at pace and for quite a while, I was completely at sea, trying to make links, pull together events.
George Smiley has recently been retired when the novel starts. Control, the old head of The Circus has died and quite a few of George’s contemporaries have also been purged as the Circus is taken over by a close knit group of spies who are running an intelligence operation called Witchcraft. This is an intensely secretive operation which is producing suspiciously good information. One day, Smiley comes home to find Peter Guillam waiting in his living room and he is whisked off to permanent secretary, Lacon’s house to meet Rikki Tarr, a field agent with important information. So begin Smiley’s investigations and the reader’s confusion and excitement at the events that follow.
Tarr tells his tale in an extended flashback. Smiley takes quiet note asking astute questions. Afterwards, he is set up in a hotel with Control’s information and begins to work through it methodically, interviewing people as he goes. Smiley is a methodical, careful man. Loyal too, even to the wife who has cheated on him many times, even with close friend and fellow spy, Bill Haydon. Le Carre gives hints and clues to who the mole is and what is actually happening. He does it in just the right amounts and at just the right speed to keep the reader interested. The pacing is perfect.
Le Carre uses a lot of jargon – lamplighters, the Circus, pavement artists, to name but three – which gives the novel an authentic feel. Le Carre worked as a spy and it is evident that he knows what he is talking about. The events, the characters, the style of the narrative voice all have a legitimacy. I thought that this jargon was from his days as a spy but it transpires that Le Carre invented a lot of it and it has then been taken up by actual intelligence agencies. Some, such as mole, have fallen into common usage. It is unclear how widely used this word was in intelligence work before this novel.
There are somethings that made me uncomfortable. It starts to become clear that Bill Haydon is the least trustworthy of the four suspects. This is established in a number of ways. He has a lot of liaisons including with George’s wife. He is described as ‘dashing’ and being like Lawrence of Arabia. It is also suggested that he and Jim Prideaux were more than friends. Jim was ‘always so thick with Bill’. Bill is very keen to have Jim repatriated and threatens to resign when The Circus won’t pay the price. When Bill recruits Jim, Smiley remembers the description of Jim’s physicality that Bill sends and it is intensely homo-erotic. In the logic of the novel, all this adds to Bill’s untrustworthiness and is equal to the way that he is playing on both teams in his professional life as well. At one point someone says ‘they said he went both ways’ and while it is clear they mean sexually, when it transpires he is the mole, the full meaning of it becomes clear.
This is obviously a tired, not to mention offensive, trope. I don’t want to be too hard on Le Carre. He didn’t invent the link between being gay and being untrustworthy. Gay spies were considered to be at a bigger risk of being blackmailed especially when homosexuality was illegal. The novel was written in 1974 and is set in 1973, only six years after the Sexual Offences Act. Not only that but Le Carre would have been working in intelligence in the fifties when Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess suddenly fled to the Soviet Union after sharing secrets throughout the war. Burgess was gay and Maclean was bisexual. It probably seemed logical to Le Carre to frame Bill Haydon in this way but for me it spoiled the reading of what otherwise was a very enjoyable book.
Overall, I think I would read Le Carre again. I enjoyed his style and I enjoyed piecing the puzzle together. I’m still not entirely sure about the genre as a whole though. Now that I’ve read a master at the game, I’m not sure what else could live up to it.