This book made me a little nostalgic for the Cold War. Not for the actual Cold War, but for the genre of spy fiction that it inspired. I really enjoyed the genre, and it is still fun, even in a different global context. Le Carre is a master of the genre--creating interesting and complex characters and convoluted plot lines that puzzle readers with all their interwoven threads right up to the last page. I'm sure that I will make time for more George Smiley in the future. A little spoiler-free plot summary--George Smiley, recently kicked out of Britain's MI6 spy agency, finds himself unexpectedly drawn back in one night. A British agent from Asia has come to England with a tale that suggests there may be a Russian mole right at the top of "the Circus," as MI6 is called. Smiley and a few others set out to try to separate fact from fiction, right under the noses of those they are investigating. Much of what they are investigating seems to connect, in part, to an incident in Czechoslovakia just before Smiley and several others were let go, which largely destroyed the career of the former head of the Circus, just months before his death. You will want a scorecard for this book--there are lots of names and aliases and operations to keep straight as you try to anticipate the solution to the puzzle. If you need your plots easy to follow, this book will probably frustrate you, but if you can bear with the frustration, as the characters must in sorting this out, you will probably enjoy the book a great deal.
I do think of these as guilty pleasure reads--while there is work in following and trying to figure out the plot, it is a very different type of work than following Salman Rushdie or hanging in there with the emotional challenges of writers like Khaled Hosseini. When people die in spy novels, so long as they aren't the actual protagonists, I'm not moved to tears. I may be sad for them, or I may just be caught up in the game. I really didn't want to put this book down, but I didn't feel profoundly moved, or unable to speak at the end. At times in my life, most of my reading has been of the mystery/thriller sort, but when I switch to more challenging and substantive stuff, I tend to look on these stretches a little like I look on binge-eating on sweets. It is fun while you are doing it, but in retrospect you realize you might rather have filled up on stuff that is a little more sophisticated and nourishing. Still, thanks to the 1001 editors for putting a few of these sorts of books on the list. Sometimes it is just really great to have ice cream for dinner.