George Smiley is the anti-Bond. The author, John le Carré, was actually a British spy, actively working when he first started writing. And these books have a realism to them that is not present in the Bond books.
Smiley is middle aged, a little overweight, kind of short. He is not sleeping around, it is actually his wife that is having the affair.
Smiley was forced into early retirement after the head of the department (or Circus in the parlance of the book) was killed. But something isn’t right and Smiley has felt it. When a missing spy that was believed to be turned to the Soviet side turns up asking for help, Smiley knows he can’t ignore it any more. And so begins a winding, often confusing book.
The audiobook was well narrated, but I think this is a book that might be better in print. It jumps all over the place in both time and location. Most reviews of it that I have read comment about the fact that they didn’t really know what was going on at least part of the time.
le Carré, at least the two I have read so far, is not action oriented. It is a slow burn, a few ideas at a time, mostly working the network and talking to people, not the glamorous shooting and car chases.
These are not idealistic spy books either. Smiley is full of doubt. There are not really good guys and bad guys, there are just spies that work for one side or the other, or maybe both, or more. The pressure and moral relevance and undercover nature of spy work plays well here.
I assumed that the Ian Fleming, Robert Lundlam style of writing was not really broken until the post cold war spy novels started coming out, like Olen Steinhauer and Susan Halser. But if le Carré was writting this these starting in the 1950s, then I have been misled. I will be reading more. If you like these probably the best modern spy novel that is equivelent is Susan Halser’s Intelligence A Novel of the CIA.
After I wrote this review I stumbled upon a podcast discussion (mp3 file) of the trilogy that starts with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Books and Culture Magazine. It is about 15 minutes long and focuses on the politics and reality of the world in these books. Very interesting.
Also you can get the Karla Trilogy on kindle that includes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. As of now, it is $9 cheaper than the book individually.