The Tailor of Panama

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The Tailor of Panama
The Tailor of Panama - bookcover .jpeg
Softcover edition
Author John le Carré
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Spy novel
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton (UK); Alfred A. Knopf (US)
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 332
ISBN 0679454462
Preceded by Our Game
Followed by Single & Single

The Tailor of Panama is a 1996 novel by John le Carré.[1] A 2001 film was released based on the novel.


Harry Pendel is a British expatriate living in Panama City and running his own successful bespoke tailoring business Pendel and Braithwaite. His wife and kids are unaware that almost every detail of his life is fabricated, including his former partner, Mr Braithwaite. In reality, Harry Pendel is an ex-convict who learnt tailoring in prison.

Andy Osnard is a young British MI6 agent sent to Panama to recruit agents to gather intelligence and protect British trade interests through the canal. However, Andy has his own agenda and, after he discovers Harry's past, sees the perfect opportunity to recruit a new agent and extort money from the British government. Concocting a fictitious network of revolutionaries, known as the silent opposition, Harry, through Andy, manages to gain the intrigue of the British secret services and U.K and even U.S. governments. However, Harry has used his own friends as the basis for his fantasies and as the plots are taken more seriously they become known to the Panamanian authorities and Harry struggles to cope with the guilt of setting them up. Harry's wife, Louisa, becomes suspicious of the amount of time he spends with Andy and suspects that Harry is having an affair. She breaks into his office and discovers all his fantastic lies. Harry's friend, Mickie, kills himself rather than face the risk of going back to jail and Harry helps dispose of the body, making it look like he was executed. As Mickie is the supposed leader of the silent opposition, the U.K. and U.S. governments use this as an excuse to topple the current Panamanian government. At the end of the book the U.S. military has begun another invasion of Panama, based largely on Harry's fabrications and Harry watches the destruction from the window of his house.


To research the novel le Carre visited Panama on five occasions.[2] The book was in part inspired by Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana.[3] Le Carré likens the tale to a "Casablanca without heroes", stating that he, "was drawn by the obvious corruption of Panama and the wonderful collection of characters you meet there."[4]

In response to observations that the novel was a more light-hearted affair than his previous books, Le Carré replied that, "I think I'm in the same mood as ever, but in some ways more mature. I guess you could say that, at sixty-five, when you've seen the world shape up as I have, there are only two things you can do: laugh or kill yourself. I think my character does both. In some ways it's a very personal book. I was exploring the relationship between myself and my own fabricator. Anybody in the creative business, as you might call it, has some sense of guilt about fooling around with fact, that you're committing larceny, that all of life is material for your fabulations. That was certainly Harry Pendel's position. So I found some kind of buzz running between me and the main character, which I had not really felt since A Perfect Spy."[5]


Upon release, The Tailor of Panama received generally glowing reviews.[6]

The New York Times stated that, "What he has done is to venture fiercely into satire, producing a tour de force in which almost every convention of the classic spy novel is violated."[7]

Rushdie Feud[edit]

A long-running literary feud between Le Carre and Salman Rushdie began in 1997 after Le Carre penned a letter to the Guardian, complaining that politically correct forces in the U.S. had labelled him anti-Semitic for his portrayal of one of the novel's characters. Rushdie responded that he wished Le Carre had expressed similar feelings after Rushdie was subject to a fatwa for The Satanic Verses, viewed as anti-Islamic by some Muslims.[8]

Rushdie opined that Le Carre was an "illiterate, pompous ass," while Le Carre replied that Rushdie was a "self-canonizing, arrogant colonialist."[9] [10]

Guardian columnist Mark Lawson claimed the two authors appeared to be 'settling old scores', stating that: "The Collected Guardian Correspondence of Salman Rushdie and John Le Carre is in the great tradition of literary poison pen letters: both in their inventive viciousness and in the low personal revenges which may lie behind the high rhetoric."[11]

Rushdie and Le Carre appeared to bury the hatchet in late 2012.[12]


  1. ^ "The Taylor of Panama by John le Carré". Retrieved 2015-03-30. 
  2. ^ Cobbs, John L (1998). Understanding John Le Carré. p. 242. ISBN 9781570031687. 
  3. ^ "Fiction Review: The Tailor of Panama". 2 October 1996. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  4. ^ Collins, Dan (12 November 1996). "The Secret Worlds of John le Carre". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  5. ^ Conversations with John Le Carré. 2004. 
  6. ^ Collins, Dan (12 November 1996). "In the Defense of Mr. Harry Pendel". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  7. ^ Rush, Norman (20 October 1996). "Spying and Lying". New York Times. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  8. ^ Calamur, Krishnadev (12 November 2012). "Salman Rushdie, John Le Carre End Literary Feud : The Two-Way". NPR. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  9. ^ Friedman, Vanessa (8 December 1997). "The Talk of the Town: Fax From London". The New Yorker. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  10. ^ Montalbano, William D. (28 November 1997). "Pens Mightier Than Swords in Authors' War of Words". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 4 August 2013.  "The authors' outspoken mutual dislike--Britain's answer to Gore Vidal vs. Norman Mailer--ignited last week in salvos of invective on the letters page of the Guardian newspaper. Literati are still rallying to their favorite's banner in a more-heat-than-light joust about freedom of speech, respect for religion--and personal grudges."
  11. ^ Lederer, Edith M (22 November 1997). "Salman Rushdie and John le Carre engage in a war of words". Associated Press. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  12. ^ Malvern, Jack (12 November 2012). "My feud with Salman Rushdie is all in the past, says John le Carré". The Times. Retrieved 4 August 2013.