John Le Carre wrote his first novel while working for MI6 but his career as an agent was ended by Soviet spy Kim Philby, who, coincidentally, recruited another English novelist, Graham Greene, to the intelligence service. A decade after Philby was exposed Le Carre used his experiences of the affair to write Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Its roots in reality, attention to detail and Le Carre's sensitivity all combine to make this a superb book. After The Master and Marguerita, it's the best I've read this year.
Le Carre's secret service is known as The Circus because of its base at Cambridge Circus on London's Charing Cross road. When suspicions are raised that a Russian agent, a 'mole' codenamed Gerald, is operating in The Circus, recently retired George Smiley is called in to find him.
Smiley was forced out after the disastrous Operation Testify, the details of which are kept from us until the final third of the book. What we do know however is that Operation Testify led to the departure of numerous top figures at The Circus. Smiley suspects that this was orchestrated by Soviet spymaster Karla to enable Gerald to consolidate his position. In a bid to uncover the mole, Smiley sets about reconstructing the events leading up to the operation.
The key passage in the novel is Smiley's meeting with Karla, which we see in flashback. Smiley is unaware of Karla's importance and wants him to defect. The encounter reveals Smiley's character to both us and Karla. We learn that this quiet, sharp inquisitor is wearying of the battle:
Did he not believe for example that the political generality was meaningless? That only the particular in life had value for him now? That in the hands of politicians grand designs achieve nothing but new forms of the old misery?
Le Carre's writing is exquisite, the characters are sharply drawn and the plot is compelling. It's a fantastic book, the first in a loose trilogy which nominally focuses on Smiley's quest for Karla but is equally a portrait of a declining social class, a futile war and the psychological cost of an unorthodox way of life.
You can probably guess what my next two books will be.