I tried to write a summary of the plot for you, but after a couple of paragraphs I had to delete it: this isn't a book I can write my usual 3-odd paraI tried to write a summary of the plot for you, but after a couple of paragraphs I had to delete it: this isn't a book I can write my usual 3-odd paragraph synopsis for. Instead, I can only give you a brief one that will probably turn into a mess of its own: George Smiley, after being forced into early retirement when changes were made in the Secret Service ("the Circus"), is brought in to lead a secret investigation to uncover a mole they've only just discovered. The only things they know about him are that he's placed high-up, his code-name is "Gerald", and he's somehow been passing information to the Russians, probably through a diplomat at the embassy. But is the mole the chief of the Circus, Percy Alleline, or Commander of the London division, Bill Haydon, or two ex-field agents, now part of Alleline's inner circle, Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase? Or as the old Chief, "Control", coded them, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman.
This is a novel about spying on the spies, and the difficulty in outlining it is why it's taken me so long to put this review together. I feel the need to give a roll-call of the cast, as it's a long list and I could have used the reference myself while reading it:
Cast of Characters Control - previous Chief of the Circus, died of a heart attack after a long illness. He knew there was a mole and was conducting his own one-man investigation before he died. His main suspects were Alleline, Haydon, Bland and Esterhase. George Smiley - the former Deputy Head of the Service, Intelligence Officer, and close confidante of Control. He too was suspected of being the mole, and Control gave him the code name of Beggarman. Uses the name "Mr Barraclough" during the investigation. Control dubbed him "Beggarman" in case he was the mole. Jim Prideaux - ex-field agent, wounded in Czechoslovakia while on a secret mission for Control, now working as a teacher at Thursgood's, a private, boys' boarding school. Workname: Jim Ellis. Bill Roach - a boy at Thursgood's who considers himself Jim's protector. Miles Sercombe - the Minister who oversees the Secret Service. Oliver Lacon - a senior policy advisor in the Cabinet Office and "a watchdog of intelligence affairs." Peter Guillam - head of the "scalp-hunters", the men who carry out the dirty, risky jobs. Based at Brixton. Ricki Tarr - a field agent now in hiding because he learned about the mole - and was proven right when his coded message to the Circus is passed on to the Russians. He brought his story to Guillam, who in turn approached Lacon and Smiley. Irina - a disillusioned Russian agent who tells Ricki that there's a mole in their agency. Percy Alleline - Control's successor as Chief of the Circus, and Director of Special Sources - meaning operation Witchcraft, a secret operation where so-called sensitive Russian documents are passed on to the Circus by a double-agent called "Merlin". Smiley suspects Witchcraft, which got Percy the top job, is the link to the mole inside the Circus. Control's codename: "Tinker" Bill Haydon - Commander of London Station, and Jim Prideaux's friend from university days. "Tailor" Roy Bland - Haydon's "number two". "Soldier" Toby Esterhase - another deputy. "Poorman" Karla - Smiley's rival in Moscow Centre, a spy and mastermind who's behind the Circus's mole. Lauder Strickland - Banking Section. Diana Dolphin & Phil Porteous - Housekeeping (internal auditors) Camilla - a music student Peter Guillam's sleeping with. Connie - former researcher in the Circus, who suspected there was a mole. Also forced into retirement by Alleline. Max - a Babysitter (bodyguard) who was brought in on the Czech mission by Jim Prideaux. Now works at a garage. Mendel - a police detective and agent of Smiley's. Sam Collins - an ex-agent who was Duty Officer the night Jim was shot. Now works at a posh-looking gaming club. Jerry Westerby - a journalist and undercover agent for the Circus.
It's hard to get a sense of time, either what year this is set in (at one point I considered '65, but then later it seemed clear it was the 70s - it was first published in 1974), or how much time had gone by between events, like how long George had been retired. And that made it hard to grasp things cleanly, and in a story that's hefty on "in" knowledge, it's easy to get confused.
There are two operations relevant to the story, Testify and Witchcraft. Testify was the name given to Control's Czech mission, where a Russian general was going to defect and give the name of the mole in the Circus to Jim Prideaux, who was going to let Control know by using the relevant code name (see cast of characters, above). That mission went badly, and shortly after it Control died and the Circus was reorganised.
Prior to that came Witchcraft, Percy Alleline's baby. From a secret source dubbed Merlin, he received intel from Russia and in return was supposedly giving Russia low-level British intel, or "chickenfeed" - the idea being that Russia believes Merlin is spying for them, not against them. But as George delves deeper into the operation, which only a few select people are privy to (including Haydon, Bland and Esterhase, who all deal with Merlin), he comes to suspect that the mole is using the meetings with Merlin to pass on sensitive British intel to the Russians, not chickenfeed at all.
You can see that there's a high level of detail here, even though the plot is quite simple when you sit back and see it from on high. Part of the novel's confounding story is the tricky time element and the vast list of characters whom you never really get to know, but mostly it's because it relies on a fair bit of previous knowledge. I often felt left behind, and confused, because it's all new to me but they discuss things, or the narrative does, as if I know the Secret Service as well as George Smiley does. It's not the nicknames for everything (Babysitter, Mothers, Scalp-hunters, the Circus, the Nursery etc.) that made me stumble, but how the characters understood so much more than me, which made their dialogue seem out of sync.
Even though I was hard-pressed to follow things, it wasn't difficult to follow the story and understand what was going on, in a big picture way. I'm the kind of person who likes to understand every line (which is why poetry and some ancient texts are frustrating for me), but I wasn't too annoyed in this case. And that's because I got quite involved in the story.
Unlike a James Bond novel, there isn't much action here - the action scenes are mostly within dialogue, like when Max and Jim recount their experience in Operation Testify. There's tension, but it's diluted by the medium (conversation). Other times, like when Guillam does some digging at head office, his fear comes across strongly. Le Carré doesn't waste words in his narrative, and the way he describes the action makes it very real, very tangible. The focus on bald, bear factual details over fancy adjectives paints a bold, stark, gritty reality:
In the men's room he waited thirty second at the basins, watching the door in the mirror and listening. A curious quiet had descended over the whole floor. Come on, he thought, you're getting old; move. He crossed the corridor, stepped boldly into the duty officer's room, closed the door with a slam, and looked around. He reckoned he had ten minutes, and he reckoned that a slammed door made less noise in that silence than a door surreptitiously closed. Move. [p.91]
That was ultimately the strength of the novel: it's realism. The bare-bones style, with here and there an emotional reflection on the part of Smiley or Guillam, made it feel at times like I was reading a biography, or a history book. (While le Carré - real name David Cornwell - worked for MI5 and MI6 in the 50s and 60s, his Introduction shows that the story is fiction, though perhaps inspired by certain real-life characters.) I've read only one other book by le Carré, The Constant Gardener, and it had a different feel, it was much more readable. With Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I felt like I was being allowed into something normally kept hidden, and quiet. I loved the feel of the story, it's dreariness, it's seediness, how almost everyone is so post-middle-aged (Guillam, at about forty, is one of the younger ones). It goes so well with the sense of an institution, of a private club past its heyday, like the description of all the dust and ancient bags of tea in the locker where the duty office log books are kept that Guillam's searching through. There are references to the Circus being almost on the out when Alleline brought in Russian documents and started Witchcraft, and with the change of guard - and knowledge of the mole - there's a new feel of suspicion, caginess, a sharper edge.
This is the first book in the Karla trilogy, which continues with The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People. I have the other two books already and I'm looking forward to continuing on with the story of George Smiley and his counterpoint in Russia, Karla, who may have lost this round - eventually - but is far from defeated. ...more
By the end of last year I was in a total YA funk. I was feeling jaded, and extremely tired of reading about American teens in American schools and allBy the end of last year I was in a total YA funk. I was feeling jaded, and extremely tired of reading about American teens in American schools and all the usual clichés that that comes with. So someone recommended Evil Genius to me as a book that would break me out of my funk - they even said they would eat their hat if I didn't like it.
Well, no need to break out the hat-dipping sauce, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped either, even if it did meet the criteria.
Cadel Piggott is far from an ordinary boy. From a young age he exhibits all the signs of being a genius - the kind with no moral compass because he has no interest in people, and no understanding of them either. His adoptive parents, the grossly overweight and red-faced Stuart Piggott and his preoccupied, vain socialite wife Lanna Piggott, take him to a child psychologist recommended by the court, Thaddeus Roth. Dr Roth is not just a psychologist - he's the right-hand man of Dr Darkkon, a mad scientist now in prison for life in the US. Roth has been watching and waiting for Cadel for a long time: he is after all Dr Darkkon's son, and the two men have great plans for the boy. First, they must hone his genius mind into the right tool, in the right direction: to rule the world.
When Cadel is fourteen he finishes high school, thanks to an accelerated program, and enrolls in the Axis Institute - a place where people with skills society frowns upon, or locks you up for, can be nurtured and perfected. Thaddeus Roth is the Chancellor, and members of the criminal underworld are the professors. His classmates include a young man from Liverpool whose stench is so bad he has to wear a kind of spacesuit to protect everyone from his smell; twins with a penchant for shoplifting, aided and abetted by a telepathic connection; and a young medical student who's trying to turn himself into a vampire.
It's a place where explosions occur often, where students test their potions on each other and where cheating is admired - so long as you don't get caught. While Cadel hones his computer-hacking skills and learns all the secrets of the faculty, his online friendship with a young woman of great mathematical ability called Kay-Lee is the only sign of normalcy in his life - if you overlook the fact that he's pretending to be a forty-something, cynical maths professor in Canada. When Kay-Lee suddenly stops answering his e-mails and then tells him to sod off, he puts all his energy into learning why. The truth comes as a shock, but now he needs a plan. A dastardly, evil plan that will, he hopes, free him of the net that's been so carefully and thoroughly woven around him, and enable him to live his own life.
I didn't realise Jinks was Australian - and reading this, it's not easy to tell, despite the Sydney setting. So it didn't meet my need to read "home-grown" YA, sadly. I also found it a bit dull, especially the first half. Then it starts to pick up, but didn't really go anywhere very interesting. Part of the problem is that Cadel - who doesn't narrate but whose perspective, if you can call it that, is the only one we get - doesn't have much charisma, and his disinterest in other people makes him alienating without being interesting. It was hard to care about him, and for a genius, I thought some of his decisions, especially towards the end, were pretty dumb.
One of my favourite Harry Potter books is The Order of the Phoenix, and a great deal of that book is involved with school - classes, homework, not much action until the very end. But it never fails to engross me. I can't explain it, but I guess it comes down to how it's written. There are large chunks of Evil Genius that follow Cadel around the school, but I found it all too boring. I couldn't keep track of who was who amongst the faculty, and for a while there the story hung in limbo. It's not because this is a long book that I took so long to read it - it's a pretty fast read, for all its page numbers. No, it's simply because I kept losing interest.
It's not all bad of course. I just felt that it had a lot of potential but didn't deliver. There were some riveting bits, and some interesting characters, but overall I wasn't greatly impressed and have no burning desire to pick up the sequel, Genius Squad. I didn't hate it, not at all. I liked it. But mostly I'm just disappointed. After writing this out and failing to remember what I enjoyed about it, maybe it is time to break out the hat-dipping sauce after all. Or maybe I just left it too long to write the review... ...more
Having completed an assignment in Mexico, James Bond, Secret Service agent 007 (licensed to kill), is having a drink at the airport in Miami while heHaving completed an assignment in Mexico, James Bond, Secret Service agent 007 (licensed to kill), is having a drink at the airport in Miami while he waits for his connecting flight when he's approached by a man he met during the infamous poker game in Casino Royale, Mr Du Pont. It's soon apparent that this older, overweight, wealthy American has an ulterior motive in striking up a conversation with Bond: he wants to hire James to check out a man Mr Du Pont has been daily playing canasta with and losing large sums of money to, a Mr Goldfinger. Due to the nature of canasta, Mr Du Pont is sure Goldfinger is cheating in order to win every single time, and Bond figures much the same thing.
His investigation of Goldfinger comes to a satisfying conclusion when Bond susses out his clever swindle, and he figures that'll be the last he'll see of Goldfinger. Not so: a connection is made between large quantities of gold leaving Britain - and making the pound lose its value - and Goldfinger, and Bond is back on the case - and discovering just how much of an evil genius and gold fanatic Goldfinger really is, and the lengths he'll go to to possess gold.
I'm pretty sure this is the Bond book I read at uni for one of my favourite courses, on popular fiction, but I've never been able to remember if it was Goldfinger or The Man With the Golden Gun. The book is quite different to the movie, and it felt like the first time I'd read it, but certain scenes made me sure this is the one. I've been wanting to re-read it again so it worked out well!
I've always loved Bond. Because my parents - my dad in particular - are a big fans, I grew up watching the movies (I'm of the Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton era and they're still my two pre-Daniel Craig favourites: Moore was campy fun and Dalton was simmering sexy anger). I also remember seeing a great movie about Ian Fleming, his life up until he started writing the Bond books, forget what it was called; and I still have to read Operation Mincemeat, which Fleming was involved in (the operation to trick the Germans into believing the Allied forces were going to land somewhere other than Normandy).
The books are something else, though. They're slow and gripping at the same time, heavily detailed and include wonderful character studies. They're also a product of their time, and James Bond is inherently sexist and racist. I remember from my uni class, when the lecturer brought this up and talked about how Bond is still so popular with women, both in the books and as a fictional character, and why. His theory, which I agree with, is that Bond gives women a chance to be liberated, especially sexually but in other ways too.
In Goldfinger, there's the character of Tilly Masterton, who is the sister of Jill Masterton who worked for Goldfinger at the beginning of the book (and who Bond had a rather exciting train ride with). It takes Bond a while to realise she's a lesbian; when they first meet in Europe and he ends up giving her a ride (not knowing who she is or why she too seems to be following Goldfinger), he feels a mixture of patronising patience and sexual desire towards her. This paragraph really highlights my old lecturer's theory, as to how Bond is so attractive to women even when they are't interested in sleeping with him:
The girl sat upright and kept her eyes on the road. ... They flashed through Bourg and over the river at Pont d'Ain. Now they were in the foothills of the Jura and there were the S-bends of N84. Bond went at them as if he was competing in the Alpine Trials. After the girl had swayed against him twice she kept her hand on the handle on the dash and rode with the car as if she were his spare driver. Once, after a particularly sharp dry skid that almost took them over the side, Bond glanced at her profile. Her lips were parted and her nostrils slightly flared. The eyes were alight. She was enjoying herself. [pp.128-9]
Later, when he finally catches on that she prefers women, he assesses Tilly in this way:
Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterton was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and 'sex equality'. As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits - barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but had no time for them. [.189]
Such opinions don't make Bond any less popular with women, though, either in the stories or as readers of the books. Bond is an exciting character, charismatic, brave, trustworthy, knowledgeable, experienced, strong and so on. He's flawed, for sure, and he doesn't always come out on top of a fight, so he's no superhero - he's more real for his embarrassing under-estimatins of people, especially women, who often use their sexuality to trap him (though he often wants to be trapped, I think: gets him closer to the heart of the matter).
Then there's Pussy Galore (what a name!), who doesn't have a huge role in the book compared to the film but who is the leader of an all-female (all-lesbian) gang: she's a beautiful, strong figure (see the cover) who speaks up in a room full of dangerous men without fear. And despite being a lesbian herself, this one Bond does conquer (she happily goes to bed with him at the end of the book: such is the power of Bond's sexual charisma).
To be fair to Bond, he also feels deep regret and sadness at the loss of women, who as we all know, are prone to die in these stories, pretty much always because of their association with Bond. With liberation comes great risk, especially if you're "just" a woman - and especially if you're a lesbian who won't listen to men like you're s'posed to, apparently. ;)
Then there's Bond's racism, which is offensive to us today but you have to keep in perspective - they were common opinions of the time and true to the character:
The encounter put Bond in good humour. For some reason Goldfinger had decided against killing them. He wanted them alive. Soon Bond would know why he wanted them alive but, so long as he did, Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms. Those terms included putting Oddjob and any other Korean firmly in his place, which, in Bond's estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy. [p.154]
These passages were definitely eyebrow-raising, but so clearly dated that their present offensiveness was been watered-down to a "tut-tut" wry head shake: we can admire Bond today but be somewhat patronisingly affectionate of his views, which allows us to enjoy him and the stories without coming to hate him. (I wonder whether the books were still selling well during the PC - political correctness - years?)
But I haven't even talked about the story, the plot, itself yet! This is only the second Bond book I've read so far, but like Casino Royale it contains detailed explanations of activities that Bond is involved with. While I can't even picture what canasta must look like or how it's played, there is some explanation of the game and why it's so impossible to win every hand. There's an excellent explanation of why gold is so important to currency and the value of a country's money, which was enlightening and made a lot of sense to me. There's a long golf game between Bond and Goldfinger and while normally golf bores the pants off me, this was not just relevant but also very engrossing. We learn a lot more about Goldfinger and the type of man he is during the golf game, and it's the drive to understand his adversaries - knowing that getting them and what makes them tick is the key to beating them - that makes Bond and his detective work so fascinating.
In fact, I think if contemporary authors in this genre wrote with such care and detail, I would probably be more interested in reading their books. But mysteries and the like bore me because they don't develop characters or give you a sense of time or place and read too contrived. Nor do they make social or political commentary. The Bond books are pulp fiction, but they're intelligent pulp. And loads of fun.
It's been some time since I saw the film version, but essentially the last half of the book felt unfamiliar - I'm pretty sure the movie took a different direction away from Goldfinger's plot to rob Fort Knox (sounds so cliched now!); I really should watch it again. The books, though, offer so much more depth than the films, and I've very much enjoying them....more
The first book in Fleming's James Bond series, Casino Royale launches us straight into the high life at Royale-les-Eaux, there to gamble all the moneyThe first book in Fleming's James Bond series, Casino Royale launches us straight into the high life at Royale-les-Eaux, there to gamble all the money away from Le Chiffre, an agent of the USSR, who needs the money to get out of his debts and save his life, since the money he initially lost wasn't his to begin with but belonged to a Soviet organisation.
To aid Bond he has his friend Mathis, a new friend in Felix Leiter from the CIA, and the beautiful but reserved Vesper Lynd from Section S in London. Attempts on his life barely put a dent in Bond's stride, but the abduction of Vesper by Le Chiffre leads to torture and worse.
This is only the second Bond book I've ever read - at uni I studied either Goldfinger or The Man with the Golden Gun - I can't actually remember which. It was a good thing to have approached the book from an academic perspective, or I might have felt betrayed by Bond's unabashed sexism. He's quite famous for it, but it's lightly glossed over in the films, which I grew up watching - hence he was my hero. Don't let the sexism put you off - it's ironic but the "Bond girls" are empowered in these stories, able to do and be things that would otherwise be out of their reach. I also get the sense of a hint of humour when Fleming boldly describes Bond's thoughts towards women - not laughing at the women, but at Bond, who in this is blind to the skills, abilities and talents of women - to his detriment. He always manages to under-value them and be surprised.
Because this is the first Bond book Fleming wrote, I expected there to be more about Bond's past, where he came from, what led him to join the secret service. But no. It establishes a character as if he had always been there and we had always known him, so it doesn't read like a first book. I liked that. And it left a lot of Bond to uncover and understand. As straight-forward as he thinks he is, it's deceptive; he's surprisingly complex because of how much we need to know in order to "get" him.
I was delighted to find just how close to the book they had stuck with in the movie - delighted and surprised, especially when it came to the infamous torture scene. Okay so the 50s isn't the 1800s, and Fleming describes around it, enough that you know what is happening without the bald words, but it's such a horrible form of torture to witness I had thought they'd devised it only for the movie. Oh yee of little faith.
There are some lengthy descriptions and explanations, especially of gambling and playing baccarat (which is helpful, because I had no idea what baccarat was exactly), but the writing is accessible and doesn't waste time. There's nothing fancy about the prose. It's a somewhat curious style, and I couldn't help but think that if Fleming were writing today he would be freed from social conventions to write more openly still. He reminds me of a toned-down version of Chuck Palahniuk: a different time and Bond would be swearing and shagging and fighting far more openly, I think. There are certainly hints of it here.
Whether you've seen the movie or not, it's worth it to read the book. I'd love to able to afford those gorgeous new hardcover editions that came out last year, but I'll settle for the cheap paperbacks....more