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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  
First US edition cover
First US edition cover
Author John le Carré
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series George Smiley/
The Quest for Karla
Genre(s) Spy novel
Publisher Random House (USA) & Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Publication date June 1974
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
ISBN ISBN 0-394-49219-6 (hardback edition)
OCLC Number 867935
Dewey Decimal 823/.9/14
LC Classification PZ4.L4526 Ti3 PR6062.E33
Preceded by The Looking-Glass War
Followed by The Honourable Schoolboy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a 1974 British spy novel by John le Carré, featuring George Smiley.

Smiley is a middle-aged, taciturn, perspicacious intelligence expert in forced retirement, recalled to service to hunt down a Soviet mole in “The Circus”, the highest echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service. In keeping with le Carré's œuvre, the in medias res narrative begins with the repatriation of a captured British spy, background being supplied through a series of flashbacks.



Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first novel of “The Karla Trilogy”, the second and third novels being The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley's People (1979), later published in an omnibus edition as The Quest for Karla (1982). These are the fifth, sixth, and seventh Le Carré Secret Service spy novels featuring George Smiley.


Control, the Circus Chief, assigns the code names “Tinker”, “Tailor”, “Soldier”, “Poorman”, and “Beggarman” to various senior intelligence officers under suspicion of being a Soviet mole, the names derived from the English children’s rhyme “Tinker, Tailor”.


Intelligence officer Jim Prideaux, a Circus fieldman, is repatriated to England from imprisonment in Communist Czechoslovakia. The Circus has found him temporary employment as a languages master at a small private school for boys, where he is known to the pupils for residing in a caravan and for his vintage Alvis roadster.

Approximately a year before Prideaux's return Control, the aged Circus Chief, suspects that one of its leaders is a Soviet mole. Earlier, in response to an unhappy Czech Army general offering to reveal the mole’s identity, Control privately launches “Operation Testify”, dispatching veteran fieldman Jim Prideaux to rendezvous with the general at Brno. Instead, Prideaux is ambushed, shot twice in the back, and captured.

In his London flat George Smiley finds his former protégé, Peter Guillam, awaiting his arrival home, under orders to deliver him to a secret meeting at the house of Oliver Lacon, the Civil Service officer responsible for the Circus.

Enroute they discuss the aftermath of the failed Operation Testify: Control’s disgrace, dismissal, and death shortly afterwards, and Smiley’s forced retirement from the Circus for proposing that Prideaux’s ambushing signalled in-house treason. Control suspected that the mole was one of the current Circus leaders handling “Source Merlin”: Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase — or his own deputy, George Smiley.

Control’s politically ambitious arch-rival, Percy Alleline, succeeded him as Circus Chief, because of the confluence of a high rate of operational failures and the acquisition of “Source Merlin”, a mysterious fount of top-grade Soviet intelligence, dubbed “Witchcraft”, which Alleline provided to his Whitehall and military allies. Under the Alleline régime Witchcraft is the principal product of the new Circus and operations centrally controlled via “London Station” by Bill Haydon and Toby Esterhase, who’s “Lamplighter” section grew and became prestigious. By contrast Peter Guillam, who replaced Jim Prideaux as head of the “Scalphunters” talent scouts and assassination bureau of the Circus, is sidelined.

At Lacon's house they meet Ricki Tarr, a scalphunter who disappeared eight months earlier in mid-operation in Hong Kong. Tarr tells Lacon, Smiley and Guillam the details of his disappearance.

During his assignment Tarr had a love affair with Irina, the common-law wife of a Moscow Centre intelligence officer. During pillow talk she spoke of a former lover in London who had been assistant to “Polyakov”: nominally the Soviet Cultural Attaché but actually employed by Karla, the Moscow Centre spymaster. Polyakov was case officer for the mole “Gerald”, a Circus high officer, whom Karla recruited years earlier. Tarr alerted London Station, who stalled him; within hours Irina was tortured and abducted to Moscow, and his hotel room ransacked. Thinking his cover blown and fearing for his life, Ricki Tarr went underground.

Following Tarr's account Lacon tasks Smiley with discovering the mole in the Circus. Gradually redacting the history of Operation Testify and Control’s consequent removal, Smiley, Guillam, and Mendel, a former Special Branch superintendent, analyse files, interrogate witnesses, and trawl the memories of retired Circus officers and agents, including Smiley himself. For him the mole hunt is further complicated by the fact that Bill Haydon was having an affair with Lady Ann, Smiley's estranged wife, at the time of Operation Testify.

Smiley first visits Connie Sachs, an intellect of prodigious memory and former head-researcher of the Circus. She confirms Irina’s story that cultural attaché Polyakov’s true name is “Viktorov”, that Karla recruited him as a special agent, but that later “he simply disappeared off the face of the earth”. From the first she identified Polyakov as a “six cylinder Karla-trained hood”, and often requested his further investigation. The requests were denied and ultimately led to Connie’s forced retirement from the Circus.

Using files Guillam burgles from Alleline's Circus, Smiley establishes a link between Witchcraft and Polyakov’s London actions, and that Witchcraft and Gerald are one conspiracy.

Over dinner Smiley relates to Guillam what he knows of Karla’s history, including having met him in India after WWII. After establishing a network in the US, the Allies captured and jailed Karla in Delhi. Since, if captured, Soviet intelligence officers were usually executed immediately upon arrival back in the USSR, Smiley attempted to persuade Karla to defect; during their laconic interview Smiley lent Karla his cigarette lighter (a gift from Ann), which Karla kept as a souvenir. Despite his Indian adventure Karla survived and prospered in Moscow; nonetheless Smiley predicts that his fanaticism will cause Karla's ultimate downfall.

Interviews with Sam Collins (night duty officer when Prideaux was ambushed) and Jerry Westerby (a reporter and “Occasional” agent) establish that the ambush was Russian, not Czechoslovak. Finally Jim Prideaux details the ambush, his capture, and interrogation. He describes Karla and Polyakov as two of the interrogators, how they were especially keen to ascertain the degree of Control’s identification of the mole, and their very detailed knowledge of his mission-briefing by Control: “They knew the brand of the bloody sherry, man”, he exasperatedly tells Smiley. Upon his repatriation to England the Circus paid him generous severance and got him a job, together with Toby Esterhase's strongly-worded order to forget the matter of Operation Testify.

While Smiley returns to London, Jim Prideaux claims an ill mother and takes emergency leave from the school.

Having pieced together the information, George Smiley prepares to flush out the Soviet mole in the Circus. Beginning with Toby Esterhase, Smiley reveals the shape of Karla’s “very clever knot.”

Source Merlin is non-existent, a phantom Gerald introduced to the Circus to propel second-rate Percy Alleline's promotion as Chief of the Circus - the mole’s perfect cover. Circus leaders believe that Polyakov is Source Merlin’s London representative, the ideal Witchcraft conduit, but, because Source Merlin is a Moscow Centre officer, the Circus supplies him with worthless “chickenfeed” intelligence to prove that he is really running a British mole. Therefore, while every indication of a Soviet mole’s presence is treated as an illusion, the suggestion is so threatening to the Alleline régime's status quo that it require ruthless suppression. Hence the sackings of Connie Sachs, Sam Collins, Jerry Westerby, and Jim Prideaux. Convinced, Esterhase tells Smiley about the procedures for meeting Polyakov. While questioning Esterhase, Smiley, Guillam, and Mendel ask him if he is spying on them, but Esterhase denies any back-up watchers to Smiley’s mole-hunt briefing.

In Paris, Ricky Tarr compels a Circus officer to transmit an urgent message to Percy Alleline, to force an emergency meeting between case officer Polyakov and his Circus mole Gerald. Smiley and Guillam await them at their safe-house. The arrival of Bill Haydon at the safe-house, together with audiotape recordings of his conversation with Polyakov, identifies him as the mole, legally establishing the Haydon–Gerald mole identity. In the event, the humiliated Percy Alleline, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase agree to Smiley’s recommendation to negotiating a spy-exchange with Karla: Soviet agent Bill Haydon for Circus secret agents imprisoned in Iron Curtain countries, who might be killed upon Haydon’s exposure.

Before departing for the USSR, Bill Haydon invites George Smiley to listen to his self-serving explanation of his betrayals, including why he became a Soviet agent. He relates that Witchcraft aimed to install Percy Alleline as Chief of the Circus; that Operation Testify was a Karla trap for discrediting Control and provoking his dismissal, because he was close to discovering the mole. Somewhat ashamed, Haydon tells Smiley that Jim Prideaux told him the operation’s launching time, whilst visiting to warn of the Circus’s suspicions that he was a Soviet agent, because their friendship dated from university. Later, shortly before the spy-exchange, Bill Haydon is found dead of a broken neck.


To politically contain the disaster of a Soviet mole among the leaders of the British Intelligence, George Smiley is appointed temporary head of the Circus. Personally, he prepares to tell Ann of Bill Haydon’s treachery and death. Elsewhere, in hope of living a “normal” life, Jim Prideaux returns to his teaching post as languages master at the boys' school.



Tradecraft jargon

The fictional authenticity of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) is established via the characters’ jargon; examples are:

Tradecraft term Definition
Agent An external, free-lance man or woman recruited to spy for the Circus.
Burrowers Researchers, usually intellectuals, recruited at university.
Circus The in-house name for MI6, the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) who collect foreign intelligence. “Circus” refers to the Cambridge Circus London locale of the headquarters.
The Competition MI5, the UK’s internal, counter-espionage and counter-terrorism service, whom the Circus call “The Security Mob”.
The Cousins The CIA in particular, and the US intelligences services, in general.
Ferrets Technicians who find and remove hidden microphones, cameras, etc.
Housekeepers The internal auditors and financial disciplinarians of the Circus.
Inquisitors Interrogators who debrief Circus intelligence officers and defectors.
Janitors The Circus headquarters operations staff.
Lamplighters Surveillance and couriers.
Mothers Secretaries and trusted typists serving the Chief of the Circus.
Nuts and Bolts The engineering department who develop and manufacture espionage devices.
Pavement Artists Men and women spies who inconspicuously follow people in public.
Scalphunters Handle assassination, counter-espionage, burglary, kidnap, etc.; the section was sidelined after Control’s dismissal.
Shoemakers Forgers of documents and the like.
Babysitters Bodyguards.
Wranglers Radio signal analysts and cryptographers; the name derives from Wrangler maths students.

Historical influences

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is John le Carré’s novelization of his experiences of the revelations in the 1950s and the 1960s which exposed the Cambridge Five traitors — among them Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby — as KGB moles employed in SIS.

George Smiley, master spy of the Circus, is modelled upon Maurice Oldfield, an SIS chief.

Karla is modelled either after Markus Wolf, chief of the HVA (Main Reconnaissance Administration) of the MfS (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit) of East Germany; or after KGB Gen. Rem Krassilnikov, whose obituary in the New York Times newspaper reported that the CIA considered him as such. Moreover, skewing in favour of the latter, Smiley reports that Karla was trained by “Berg”, Alexander Mikhailovich Orlov, a KGB intelligence officer who defected to the West in 1938.

Bill Haydon derives from Kim Philby, who, in the late 1950s, transcended SIS suspicions that he, too, might be a traitor, given his nexus with the defector Guy Burgess, and continued as an SIS intelligence officer until defecting to the USSR in 1963.

Connie Sachs, the Circus’s principal researcher, is modelled upon Millicent Bagot.



The title of the 1979 television adaptation
Video version box cover.

In 1979, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) was adapted to television as a seven-part series for the BBC, featuring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, of the SIS; the initial broadcast coincided with the Government announcing that Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, was one of the Cambridge Five traitors. In the US, the PBS network broadcast it, as a Great Performances programme introduced by the Canadian journalist Robert MacNeil, who explained the workings of SIS.

The title credits feature a matryoshka doll progressively revealing a doll more irate than the previous, with the final doll being faceless, an allusion to Winston Churchill’s describing Russia as “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”; analogously, the literary George Smiley concludes that only Karla saw the last doll in Bill Haydon. The closing credits music, an arrangement of the Nunc dimittis prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (1662), was composed by Geoffrey Burgon for organ, trumpet and treble; the score earned the Ivor Novello Award for 1979.

In the US, subsequent syndicated broadcasts compressed the seven British episodes to six American episodes (the current US DVD version), wherein scenes were shortened, and the narrative sequence altered; in the British original, Smiley visits Connie Sachs before Peter Guillam's burglary of the Circus, the US version reverses the sequence of those simultaneous events.



In 1988, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatisation, by Rene Basilico, of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in seven weekly half-hour episodes, produced by John Fawcett-Wilson; it is available as a BBC audiobook in CD and audio cassette formats. Notably, Bernard Hepton portrays George Smiley; nine years earlier, he had portrayed Toby Esterhase in the television adaption.


In 2009, BBC Radio 4 broadcast new dramatisations, by Shaun McKenna, of the eight George Smiley novels by John le Carré, featuring Simon Russell Beale as George Smiley, of the SIS. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was broadcast as three, one-hour episodes, from Sunday 29 November to Sunday 13 December 2009 in BBC Radio 4’s Classic Serial slot; the producer was Steven Canny.[1]



In June 2008, The Guardian newspaper reported that Peter Morgan and John le Carré were writing a cinematic adaptation of the novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), for Working Title Films and to be directed by Tomas Alfredson, director of Let the Right One In (2008).[2][3]


External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a novel, published in 1974, by John le Carré. It details a plot by the KGB to destroy 'The Circus' (British Intelligence), and the operation by its last hope, George Smiley, to save it.

On the re-arrangement of the circus

George Smiley: Reason as motive, or reason as logic, or reason as a way of life? They don't have to give me a reason - I can write my own damn reasons - and that is better than the half-baked tolerance that comes from no longer caring!

George Smiley: I'm surprised they didn't throw you out with the rest of us. You had all the qualifications for losing your job; good at your work, loyal, discreet.

On Other Spies

George Smiley: I'm so out of touch, Peter - does Lacon have any particular titles these days?
Peter Guilliam: ...Just Sir Oliver of the Cabinet office. You know how he loves being one of nature's prefects.

George Smiley: Control died after a long illness, throughout most of which he continued to work. Besides he hated South Africa. He hated everywhere except Surrey, the Circus and Lords cricket ground.

George Smiley: You featherhead, Martindale! You pompous, bogus, gossiping old featherhead.

George Smiley: Roy Bland is not 'red brick.' He was at St. Antony's College, Oxford.


There are three of them and Alleline.

-Repeated line

Roy Bland: If you can't beat it, spy on it. It's the way of the world these days; you scratch my conscience, I'll drive your Jag.


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