Budapest, 1973. British spy Jim Prideaux is shot and captured by Soviet agents. Following the debacle, Percy Alleline and his associates Bill Haydon, Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase assume control of British Intelligence, also known as "The Circus". They initiate operation "Witchcraft", whereby they receive Soviet intelligence from a double agent called Polyakov.
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George Smiley, a retired member of The Circus is tasked by a politician with investigating claims of a mole at the top of the organization. The claims are coming from agent Ricky Tarr, who was thought to have deserted after being sent to Istanbul. There he met Irina, a woman willing to trade the name of the mole in exchange for protection. Before he could recieve orders from London, Irina was captured and he was accused of treason.
Through his investigation with the help of agent Peter Guillam, Smiley finds evidence of truth in Tarr's story. He also meets with Jim Prideaux, who had been hiding as a teacher after being deported by the Soviets. It is revealed that Prideaux' mission was also the discovery of the mole, and that the Soviets already knew about the investigation, suggesting the claims of a information leak are true.
Smiley finds out where Percy Alleline and his allies meet with Polyakov, the supposed Russian double agent, to receive information. He concludes that one of these men is the mole, passing information to Polyakov in exchange for worthless material. He sets a trap for them at the location and the mole is revealed to be Bill Haydon.
Prideaux takes his own revenge on the traitor, and Smiley takes his seat as the new Chief of British Intelligence.
Best part of story, including ending:
This is one of the best spy stories I know. There isn't much action, it consists mostly of very calculated people talking in a very calculated manner, and little details with huge significance. The plot is naturally convoluted and creates an atmosphere of paranoia.
Best scene in story:
My favourite scene is when Smiley gets drunk and tells Guillam the story of how he first met Karla, his Soviet counterpart. He acts out their encounter almost like in a play. We learn so much about Smiley in this scene and Gary Oldman is fantastic.
Opinion about the main character:
Smiley is the complete opposite of the glamorous spies we are used to from Bond films. He is very ordinary, mannered and doesn't find himself running from explosions all the time. His work is based on intelligence and discipline, as well as the study of human behaviour.