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Toby Esterhase is a fictional character in John le Carré's George Smiley spy novels including Tinker, Tailor, soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley's People, as well as some of the stories in The Secret Pilgrim.
He is a high-ranking officer in "The Circus" (the British Secret Intelligence Service), eventually becoming head of "lamplighters."
He eventually rose to be head of the Lamplighter division (the Circus name for a host of covert "service" personnel, whose duties include covert surveillance, courier deliveries, and maintaining safe houses).
At the time of Tinker, Tailor, Esterhase has a son at Westminster and a daughter at medical school. He is married, but has a reputation as a womaniser.
When the Circus became polarised between supporters of the ailing Chief, "Control," and his rival, Percy Alleline, Esterhase gravitated towards Alleline out of ambition, forgetting his past loyalty to Smiley, who was Control's supporter. Along with Alleline, Bill Haydon, and Roy Bland, Esterhase forms part of the "magic circle" with access to the marvelous Soviet intelligence code-named "Witchcraft," supplied by the mysterious "Source Merlin."
Esterhase is one of the five high-ranking Circus officers Control suspects of being a Soviet mole. After Control's death, Esterhase embraces the new Alleline regime and allows his lamplighters to be almost entirely given over to serving Operation Witchcraft, which is in fact nothing but a disinformation campaign orchestrated by Soviet spymaster Karla. Esterhase's own role is to pretend to be a Soviet mole when meeting with the Soviets. They know he is not, of course, but his pretense provides a cover story for Alleline, Bland, and Esterhase himself, justifying his role as a courier between the real mole, Haydon, and his Soviet controllers.
After patient investigation, Smiley decides to interview Esterhase in private, explaining to him how Karla has fooled them all into providing cover for his own mole's activities. Esterhase appears disbelieving, but professes himself willing to help when he realises that Smiley has the official backing of Whitehall and realises the implications of his having been the courier for sealed packets, whose contents he has not seen, to the Soviet agents. He tells Smiley enough about the contact procedures for Operation Witchcraft for Smiley to entrap the real mole, Bill Haydon. In the aftermath of Haydon's exposure, Esterhase and the rest of the magic circle are disgraced.
In The Honourable Schoolboy, it is revealed that Esterhase, unlike Alleline and Bland, has managed to retain a position in the Circus, albeit one much more humble than his former one. Partially this may be explained by his (cosmetic) switch of loyalty to Smiley's side just before the mole's exposure, and partially by the fact that his expertise is more technical than Alleline's or Bland's, and thus has not been rendered completely useless by Haydon's treachery.
In Smiley's People, he has retired from the Circus and opened a second-rate art gallery in London, whose wares are of dubious provenance. An old Circus agent, Vladimir, approaches him, asking for help with a private operation, but Esterhase refuses adamantly. When Vladimir is later killed, Esterhase somewhat shamefacedly recounts their meeting to Smiley.
When Vladimir's death leads Smiley to a possible means of trapping Karla, he recruits Esterhase for an espionage operation in Berne, to capture and interrogate one of Karla's agents. Esterhase serves as Smiley's field commander, overseeing the agents who follow, investigate, and eventually trap the Soviet spy in question—to use Smiley's theatrical analogy, Smiley writes the show, and Esterhase produces it—a job he performs superbly. He is also with Smiley in Berlin when Karla defects to the West and surrenders himself to Circus custody.
Esterhase also appears in a rather farcical vignette from The Secret Pilgrim, placed in the mid-1970s at some time after the events of Tinker, Tailor, soldier, Spy. In it, Esterhase gets rid of a charlatan—an exiled Hungarian professor based in Frankfurt, who provides the British with virtually worthless information—by successfully convincing the Americans that he is a dauntless anti-Communist hero.
Appearance and Character
Esterhase is described as a very slight (Connie Sachs called him "Tiny Toby"), stiff-backed man, with silvery hair and a crisp, unfriendly jaw; he rarely smiles. Peter Guillam once remarked to himself that he and Esterhase shared a hotel room in Bern(e) for three months during an operation, at the end of which he knew Esterhase no better than he did on the first day.
A snob, and something of a dandy, Esterhase knows the places to eat and "be seen," washes his own clothes, and wears a hair net over his trademark mane. Smiley reflects that Esterhase tries hard to be an English gentleman rather than a Hungarian, with sometimes comical results.
Both Guillam and Ned (the narrator of The Secret Pilgrim) sum up Esterhase's character by saying that at certain times they want nothing to do with Esterhase, while at others they are glad to have him by their side. On the one hand, Esterhase is an ambitious "climber," who will grasp any means to advance his own position or else avoid any embarrassment to himself. On the other hand, Esterhase is undeniably good at his work, and a definite asset to any intelligence operation, while he also retains some honest loyalty to the institution of the Circus, and some honest affection for Smiley, who rescued him from a life of poverty.
As noted by Ned in The Secret Pilgrim, though he had lived much of his life away from Hungary, when Esterhase is in the company of other Hungarians and speaking his mother tongue with them, he seems far more vivid than Ned ever saw him before.
Esterhase (Esterházy in the Hungarian spelling) is the name of a historically prominent Hungarian aristocratic family; in none of Le Carre's books is there, however, a clear reference to that background or an explicit suggestion that the character is (or claims to be) related to that family.
In Other Media
Bernard Hepton played Esterhase in the BBC television dramatisations of Tinker, Tailor, soldier, Spy and Smiley's People. In the former, Hepton played Esterhase as a typical Englishman with a standard English accent, but in Smiley's People, Hepton adopted a more Eastern European accent for the role.
Charles Kay played Esterhase in the BBC radio dramatisations of Tinker, Tailor, soldier, Spy and Smiley's People.
David Dencik played Esterhase in the 2011 film version of Tinker, Tailor, soldier, Spy. Dencik's Esterhase spoke with a subtle but difficult-to-place Eastern European accent. The details of Esterhase's past are altered slightly in the film. According to the film, it was Control, rather than Smiley, who first recruited Esterhase in Vienna. When Smiley confronts Esterhase about Operation Witchcraft, he states that Esterhase was a "wanted man" at the time of his recruitment and implies that Easterhase is still a fugitive. Although it is not specified why or by whom Esterhase is wanted, it is suggested that his fugitive status may have to do with his "war experience," which Smiley cryptically states Esterhase "survived [...] because of [his] ability to change sides, serve any master."