The book revolves around Britain's intelligence service, "the Circus", which is tasked with gathering information from foreign countries. This involves spying on other countries, mainly the USSR and its satellites, finding and operating spies, and the "leg work" of passing information to and from them. This is exciting work but something is rotten in the Circus and the head of the service, Control, is determined to find the rat. But his efforts fail spectacularly in an embarrassing international incident, and his reign is replaced by an entirely new regime. His deputy, the almost invisible, mild mannered and deceptively perceptive Smiley is also thrown out. The reappearance of rogue Circus operative, Ricki Tarr, a year later raises the specter of betrayal once again, and now Smiley, one of the few people that can be trusted – maybe – is tasked with finding out the truth: Is there a mole in the Circus and who is he? With no access and barely any resources and with time working against him, Smiley tries to find his way through the muddied waters of the Circus's past, which is also his own, leading to the surprising present.
I picked this book up as an "antidote" to the superficial characterization in Jurrassic Park (see my review here), and in this respect I was not disappointed. Much of the book occurs in Smiley's mind and his feelings and thoughts about events and people around him, past and present, are laid bare to the reader. Other characters are also described in a similar manner, though some perhaps in less detail, and the events themselves are often seen and described from different points of view. Clearly, this book is not so much about the "action" – there isn't much – but more about life in the shadows and what it does to the people living there: Here are spies and spymasters who are real, fallible human beings with understandable motives and emotions. In addition, the entire book is written in the author's unique style, which creates a dreamy, unreal atmosphere throughout. Yet, despite the deep characterization and the many insights provided into the characters' motives, the book has a good pace and all the excitement and tension of a good spy thriller. That said, there was one thing that bothered me: the meek, hapless reaction of almost everyone involved when they finally unmask the traitor in their midst. Maybe it's a British thing, not to show any emotions, but I would expect a lot more outrage; there is no crime worse than betrayal.This time around (I've already read this book several times), I also noticed that no one makes a case for Britain, and when Smiley is required to do so he fails to come up with a good answer. In this, perhaps, the book, which was written in the 1970s, foreshadows the decay and decline of British society.