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Posts Tagged ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’

I caught the elephant walk on the local news last night; yes, the circus is back in town. As much as I enjoy the animals and the acrobats, I’m too busy to head to the arena. Besides, I’m being vastly entertained by events at the Circus, which John le Carre fans know is his name for the British Secret Service, or MI5.

The novels that make up the Karla trilogy — Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; Smiley’s People — are among my favorite books, and every few years I reread them all, immersing myself in bespectacled George Smiley’s bleak world of scalp-hunters and lamplighters, Sarratt and the Nursery, London Central and the American cousins.

In Tinker, Tailor, Smiley hunts for the mole planted by Russian spymaster Karla in the heart of the 1970s Circus. The mole’s unmasking leaves the Circus in tatters in Schoolboy, and Smiley sends philandering journalist Jerry Westerby back to Hong Kong. Then, in Smiley’s People, word is out that Karla’s in search of “a legend for a girl.” Time for the Circus to get its act together and bring Karla over.

My latest rereading was prompted by the new film version of Tinker, Tailor, which I liked very much, an excellent distillation of the book although not as suspenseful as the 1979 miniseries with Alec Guinness as Smiley. Who is the mole? “There are three of them and Alleline” among the suspects, and  the miniseries allows for more backstory. Gary Oldham (and his glasses) makes for a wonderful Smiley, and the rest of the cast, including Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong and Toby Jones, are all well-suited to their roles.

Still, I have quibbles. It doesn’t make much difference that Boris appears in Budapest rather than Hong Kong, but why is Jerry Westerby the night duty officer instead of Sam Collins? What’s the point of Peter Guillam having a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend? And why does everything look so dull and brown when the script is actually as slick and sharp as steel knife?

Oh, apples and oranges. I like them both, or rather all three: book, mini-series and new movie. And all three Karla novels, too. Smiley’s People also was a good miniseries. I’d like to see the same Tinker film team take a crack at that story. Meanwhile, I’m in Hong Kong with Jerry and then on to Switzerland with George. Don’t tell Karla we’re coming.

Open Book: I have multiple copies of all of le Carre’s books, but I lent my paperback of The Honourable Schoolboy to a friend several years ago, who then lost it on a trip to Hong Kong.  Or so he said. I bought the digital editon for the Nook tablet.

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Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and, oh, yes, Cairncross. The infamous Cambridge Five, the spy ring that upended British intelligence in the 20th century. Now, name the Sixth Man.

 Right, there wasn’t one. Or was there? Espionage aficionados, historians and conspiracy theorists have long speculated that perhaps another Trinity College student was recruited in 1930s Cambridge by Moscow Centre. The Brits covered so long for Blunt and Cairncross, perhaps they covered for another mole. What if this ancient agent is still alive?

Charles Cumming uses this unlikely premise as a springboard for his new thriller, The Trinity Six, which reminded me how much I love a good spy novel in the tradition of early John le Carre and Len Deighton. I reread Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carre’s classic mole hunt, every few years even though I know its secrets. Alec Guniness and Ian Richardson starred in the excellent 1979 British miniseries; I’m not sure the new film version due out later this year is needed, even with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth among the stellar cast.

On the other hand, Cumming’s novel appears tailor-made for a film, with its engaging characters and atmospheric scenes in European capitals. It’s written cinematically, too. When history professor Sam Gaddis excuses himself from the bar in Budapest just as his source is primed to spill all, you want to yank him back to his seat. No, don’t go write up notes for your book in the men’s room. Don’t you know about the assassin just waiting to pick off the man you’re with? 

Readers do, of course, because they’ve seen him outside on the street. Shots are going to ring out. Sam’s going to be on the run again, hunted by both the British and the Russians because he’s getting to close to identifying ATTILA, the sixth man with the really big secret. Didn’t Sam learn anything after the fiasco in Berlin? Has he counted the bodies piling up in his wake? Can he really trust the lovely and efficient Tanya, who has betrayed him before? Just as well Sam doesn’t know the British have tagged him POLARBEAR, as in soon to be extinct.

Cumming knows the conventions and tradecraft of the spy novel inside out. The movie The Third Man figures in a code; Sam reads the spy novel Archangel on a train. In the end, he even invokes the Moscow Rules in a kind of rueful homage to a past that didn’t include e-mail and throwaway cell phones.

The Trinity Six is as old-fashioned and entertaining a Cold War thriller as you can find in the age of Google and the Taliban. As one old spymaster instructs Sam, “Never underestimate the extent to which SIS and the Russians loathe one another. It’s a blood feud.”

Still, I wish the story held better secrets and surprises, that the foreshadowing wasn’t so heavy, that betrayal came like a knife to the heart. Ah, where have you gone George Smiley?

Open Book: I received an advance readers’ edition through a web promotion of Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six (St. Martin’s Press). Now, I want to read  Cumming’s previous three thrillers as I eagerly await his next.

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