Upon publication in April, 1974, John Le Carre's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" was acclaimed a masterpiece of the cold war spy genre, and short listed -- along with several other Le Carre works-- for greatest spy story of them all. Firstly, there was Le Carre's immense, first-hand, front-line spying experience. His lean, mean writing. The plot, dealing with Britain's MI5 international spy agency; it's a marvel of clarity and complexity. The irresistible narrative force. Another of the author's great set piece openings, plus a few more.
As to the characters, there's the long-suffering George Smiley, his beautiful offstage wife Lady Ann. The inscrutable Bill Haydon: at one point, late in the narrative, Smiley does actually think of him as that Russian doll: one doll within another, within another. The implacable opponent, Russia's Karla, head of KGB, MI5's opposite number. Smiley's confrontation with him, in a 1950's Indian prison, sears itself into the brain. The whole MI5 gang: control, Percy Alleline, Ricky Tarr, Roy Bland, Peter Guillam, Inspector Mendel, Oliver Lacon, Toby Esterhase, Connie Sachs, Jerry Westerby, and, most importantly, Jim Prideaux, the loyal man most severely injured by a Czechoslovakian cock-up. Finally, Bill Roach, richest boy at the school where Prideaux now teaches, emotionally resonant,fat, miserable, and devoted to Prideaux.
A dying control (head of organization) believes there's a mole-- that is, a long-term counterspy placed within a spying organization-- it's a term Le Carre actually invented, and the world now uses-- in MI5. In control's effort to smoke out the mole, so-called Gerald, the chief sets in motion an ill-advised Czechoslovak operation, with disastrous results. So at control's death, Percy Alleline, one of the boys, benefiting from an all-around wizard source, takes over the organization and gets his knighthood. But the mole's still flashing his presence. So who is it: in control's immortal words, taken from a British children's rhyme-- tinker, tailor, soldier, spy, or Smiley, whom we learn is beggarman? (Oddly enough, this famous formulation, the book's title, is not introduced until late.) The minister in charge sets Smiley to find out.
Coming back to this book after many years, thing I find most striking is that there's a dimension beyond tight writing, knowing spycraft, masterful plot and characters: feeling. Smiley, close to finally unraveling the betrayal, confronts Esterhase, chief of the lamplighters: the tradecraft men. "It is the perfect fix; you see that, don't you Toby, really? Assuming it is a fix. It makes everyone wrong who's right: Connie Sachs, Jerry Westerby...Jim Prideaux...even control. Silences the doubters before they've even spoken out...The permutations are infinite, once you've brought off the basic lie....Take it to its logical conclusion, and Gerald would have us strangling our own children in their beds."
Smiley is angry, as is his creator, and that will influence the outcome of the final great set-piece, the book's conclusion. It earns its perch on the short list.