John le Carré is the acknowledged master of espionage fiction not only because of stellar writing but also firsthand knowledge of espionage. Le Carré (the pen name of David J. M. Cornwell) spent years as an operations agent for the British equivalent of the CIA.
Le Carré's Karla trilogy features British Intelligence officer George Smiley's combat with his counterpart in the Soviet KGB. The first novel in the series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, brings Smiley back from forced retirement when it is suspected that a Soviet mole has penetrated the top levels of British intelligence. The title refers to code names for four senior intelligence officers, one of whom may be a traitorous double agent working for Karla. To avoid alerting the mole, Smiley has to investigate without disclosing his purpose. He solves the problem by analyzing purloined files, interviewing old colleagues, and tapping his own memories, finally setting a trap for the traitor. The story is complicated and has many subplots, including a botched operation in communist Czechoslovakia and the infidelity of Smiley’s estranged wife with one of the suspects.
Typical of le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is cerebral, nuanced, and nonlinear. Le Carré is a writer who relies on characters’ puzzling out the solution and not on high-tech action. With the end of the Cold War, he has shifted his plots away from intelligence to broader themes of global perfidy. His East-West conflict novels are still relevant and worth reading, however. While the adversaries have changed, the world atmosphere is even more menacing. No less relevant are le Carré’s unsentimental view of government agencies and his insistent questioning of whether worthy ends justify ugly means. In a world of betrayal and treachery, the dowdy, unprepossessing Smiley is the moral center. Le Carré’s most famous character, he continues to contend with Karla in the other two books in the trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley's People (1979).
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