I hadn’t read any spy genre novels before, but this one came highly recommended and seems to be a classic of the genre. We’ll call it 4 stars for “this seems like a good book, but it isn’t my genre so don’t take my star rating too seriously.”
George Smiley is an unsexy but astute official in Britain’s intelligence service who has recently been forced into retirement due to a change of directors that happened under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Not too happy with retirement (his wife has recently left him), he’s called in to investigate word of a double agent passing intelligence to the Russians. The book is a thriller in a way, with its high tension, secrets, close focus on individual scenes, and slow drip of clues as George approaches the culprit. But it’s not a modern thriller in the sense that there’s little action or physical danger to George, who slowly uncovers the truth through talking to other spies.
The book is well-written, and I didn’t find the plot as dense as some other readers did; despite my not reading it all at once, it was understandable. That said, the heavy use of 70’s Britishisms in addition to the invented spy slang (which, life imitating art, has apparently since come into actual use) makes the language opaque at times. And a lot of characters are introduced early on whose role in the plot is minimal, which makes them a bit difficult to keep track of.
But I was able to figure things out (or ignore them) without too much trouble, and this was an enjoyable read. It fits within the mold of a genre novel, but is more intelligent than you typically find in “thrillers.” And it’s a spy novel, but it doesn’t glorify spies; having read it, the author’s comment in the introduction that both the SIS and CIA “would have done much less damage to their countries, moral and financial, if they had simply been disbanded” makes perfect sense. Worth reading even if this is not your typical fare.