Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)
Jump to: navigation, search
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
JohnLeCarre TinkerTailorSoldierSpy.jpg
First UK edition
Author John le Carré
Cover artist Jerry Harpur[1]
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series George Smiley /
The Quest for Karla
Genre Spy novel
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Random House (USA)
Publication date
June 1974
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
ISBN 0-394-49219-6
OCLC 867935
LC Class PZ4.L4526 Ti3 PR6062.E33
Followed by The Honourable Schoolboy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 1974 spy novel by British author John le Carré. It follows the endeavors of taciturn, aging spymaster George Smiley to uncover a Soviet mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service. Since the time of its publication, the novel has received critical acclaim for its complex social commentary and lack of sensationalism, and remains a staple of the spy fiction genre.[2]


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is John le Carré's novelisation about his experiences of the revelations in the 1950s and the 1960s which exposed the Cambridge Five traitors: Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, and Kim Philby as KGB moles in the British Intelligence services.

The character Bill Haydon is partly derived from Kim Philby, a senior SIS officer and double agent who defected to the USSR in 1963. David Cornwell (John le Carré) worked as an intelligence officer for both MI5 and the SIS (MI6). He has said that Philby betrayed his identity to the Russians, which was a factor in the 1964 termination of his intelligence career.[3][4]


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was followed by The Honourable Schoolboy in 1977 and Smiley's People in 1979. The three novels were later published as an omnibus edition titled Smiley Versus Karla in 1982.

These are the fifth, sixth, and seventh le Carré spy novels featuring George Smiley (The first four being: Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and The Looking Glass War). Two of the characters, Peter Guillam and Inspector Mendel, first appeared in le Carré's first book, Call for the Dead (1961).


It is 1973, the height of the Cold War. George Smiley, former senior official of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (known as "the Circus" because its London office is at Cambridge Circus), has been living in unhappy retirement for a year after an operation in Czechoslovakia, code-named Testify, ended in disaster with the capture of agent Jim Prideaux. The failure of Testify resulted in the dismissals of Smiley and his superior, Control, the head of the Circus. Smiley is unexpectedly approached by Peter Guillam, his former protege at the Circus, and Under-Secretary Oliver Lacon, the Civil Service officer responsible for overseeing the Intelligence Services. At Lacon's home they hear the account of Ricki Tarr, a Circus agent who has been missing for months. Tarr tells them of the existence of a Soviet mole at the highest level of the Circus. The mole is code-named Gerald and is handled by Moscow Centre's agent, Polyakov, stationed at the Soviet embassy in London. Tarr tells them that when he obtained this information from a female Russian diplomat visiting Hong Kong and informed London, the woman was immediately and forcibly returned to Moscow. Tarr, realizing someone in London had betrayed him to Moscow, went on the run. He came out of hiding and contacted Guillam, his former boss, the only person in the Circus he could trust.

Smiley accepts Lacon's request to investigate in total secrecy, since all senior Circus staff are suspects. He soon focuses on the details of the Circus's best source of intelligence on the Soviet Union, code-named Merlin, a source Control had deemed suspicious from the start. Merlin had been developed and vigorously sponsored by four ambitious senior Circus men, led by Percy Alleline, who wanted to oust Control and had rallied Circus overseers in Whitehall to their cause at the time of Testify. Smiley believes Gerald must be one of these four: Alleline himself, a vain and politically skilled Scot who took over as Chief from Control; Roy Bland, a gifted if boorish intellectual of humble origins; Toby Esterhase, a self-serving Hungarian refugee hungry for promotion; or Bill Haydon, an aristocratic polymath and a Circus legend who once had an affair with Smiley's now-separated wife Ann.

By examining classified documents surreptitiously provided by Lacon and Guillam, Smiley discovers that Merlin is not one source but several and that the operation has an ultra-secret London end: a safe house where Alleline and his inner circle personally collect information from a Merlin emissary posted in London under diplomatic cover. Eventually, Smiley realizes the truth: the Merlin emissary is none other than Polyakov himself and that the actual flow of information goes the other way, with Gerald passing actual British secrets ("gold dust") while receiving fake and worthless Soviet material ("chicken feed").

Smiley suspects a link between Merlin and the botched Operation Testify, whose details Control had hidden from him at the time. He tracks down Prideaux and all other Circus participants and confirms the connection. Control had independently concluded the existence of a mole and mounted Testify to learn his identity from an aspiring defector in Czech intelligence who claimed to be privy to the information. Polyakov and Karla, Moscow Centre's spymaster and Smiley's nemesis, were both present at Prideaux's interrogation which focused exclusively on the extent and status of Control's investigations. The Czech defector was a plant, engineered by Karla to provoke Control's demise through Testify's failure and so protect the mole.

Smiley traps Esterhase, whose deep involvement in Merlin has made him vulnerable, forcing him into revealing the location of the safe house. Tarr is sent to Paris where he sends a coded message to Alleline about "information crucial to the well-being of the Service". This triggers a "crash" (i.e., "emergency") meeting between Gerald and Polyakov at the safe house where Smiley and Guillam are lying in wait. Haydon is revealed to be the mole.

Haydon's interrogation reveals that he was recruited several decades ago by Karla and became a full-fledged Soviet spy partly for political reasons, partly in frustration at Britain's rapidly declining influence on the world stage. He is expected to be exchanged with the Soviet Union for several of the agents he betrayed but is killed shortly before he is due to leave England. Although the identity of his killer is not explicitly revealed, it is strongly implied to be Prideaux. Smiley is appointed temporary head of the Circus to deal with the fallout. Smiley visits Ann in an attempt to salvage their relationship.


Control, chief of the Circus, suspects one of the five senior intelligence officers at the Circus to be a long-standing Soviet mole and assigns code names with the intention that should his agent Jim Prideaux uncover information about the identity of the mole, Prideaux can relay it back to the Circus using a simple, easy-to-recall codename. The names are derived from the English children's rhyme "Tinker, Tailor":

Tinker, tailor,
soldier, sailor,
rich man, poor man,
beggarman, thief.

Alleline was "Tinker", Haydon was "Tailor", Bland was "Soldier", Toby Esterhase was "Poor Man", and George Smiley was "Beggarman" ("sailor" was not used due to its similar sound to "tailor".)


  • George Smiley: Educated at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he fully intended on making a career as a professor specializing in "the literary obscurities of seventeenth-century Germany". But in 1928 (mid-1930s in revised chronology) he was recruited by Circus "talent spotter" Jebedee. Smiley became a spy's spy for two reasons: first, his wife, Lady Ann Sercomb, described him as "breathtakingly ordinary". Secondly, Smiley saw the opportunity for "excursions into the mystery of human behaviour". As of the events of Tinker Tailor, Smiley has become Control's right-hand man. However, Smiley is forced out of the Circus after Control's retirement and continues his academic research into the 17th century German Baroque literature.
  • Percy Alleline: Chief of the Circus following Control's ousting. "A lowland Scot and a son of the Manse". "A bit of an athlete". "Missed the war by a year or two". Former field agent; Control despised him. Cambridge. Alleline spent his early career in South America, Northern Africa and India. Alleline is knighted in the course of the book in recognition of the quality of the "Witchcraft" intelligence provided by Merlin.
  • Roy Bland: Second in command to Bill Haydon of London Station. "Cockney voice". Son of a dockworker who was "a passionate trade-unionist and a Party member". "A warm-hearted and impulsive fellow, red-haired and burly". Smiley recruited him at Oxford. Bland was the top specialist in Soviet satellite states and spent several years under cover as a left-wing academic in the Balkans before being instated in Circus.
  • "Control": Former head of the Circus and now dead. Before the war he was a Cambridge don.
  • Toby Esterhase: "Runs between Bill Haydon and Roy Bland like a poodle". Ran the "lamplighters" when Control was in charge. White hair. "Dressed like a male model, but was unmistakably a fighter". "Tiny Toby spoke no known language perfectly, but he spoke them all". "Would put the dogs on his own mother if it bought him a pat on the back from Alleline". Hungarian; recruited by Smiley as "a starving student in Vienna".
  • Peter Guillam: In charge of the "scalp hunters" at the Brixton location ("they were to handle the hit-and-run jobs that were too dirty or too risky for the residents abroad. They weren't gradual, and they weren't gentle, either"). Son of a French businessman and an Englishwoman and longtime associate of Smiley from the Ministry of Defence.
  • Bill Haydon: Commander of London Station; worked with the Circus since the war. "Dashing Bill Haydon, our latter day Lawrence of Arabia". "Painter, polemicist, socialite". "Of that pre-war set that seemed to have vanished for good". Reputed to be bisexual. Father was a High Court judge. Close companion of Prideaux since university. Oxford. One of Ann Smiley's many cousins, also her lover. One of the four who ran the double agent codenamed "Merlin".
  • Oliver Lacon: "Of the Cabinet Office, a senior advisor to various mixed committees and a watchdog of intelligence". Recruited Smiley to find the mole. As Guillam phrased it, "Whitehall's head prefect". Cambridge.
  • Mendel: Retired former Inspector in the Special Branch, who assists Smiley. He and Smiley have worked together before and Smiley trusts him more than most. A "quirkish, loping tracker of a man, sharp-faced and sharp-eyed". Keeps bees as a hobby.
  • Jim Prideaux (code name: Jim Ellis): Fluent speaker of Czech and several other languages. He was shot in Czechoslovakia during the operation code-named "Testify" which was blown to the Soviets. Former head of the "scalp hunters". Now teaches at a boys' prep school. Close friend, possibly lover, of Haydon. "A large fellow". Athlete. Raised partially abroad and educated at Oxford University.
  • Connie Sachs: Former Russia analyst for the Circus, forced to retire, now runs a rooming house in Oxford. "A big woman, bigger than Smiley by a head". Alcoholic, but with an excellent memory. She is said to have been modelled on Milicent Bagot.
  • Ricki Tarr: A field agent who found Irina and gives a clear indication that there is a "mole" in the Circus. Smiley trained him and gave him his first job. Works for Guillam as one of the "scalp hunters".


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy employs spy jargon which is presented as the authentic insider-speak of British Intelligence. Le Carré said that, with the exception of a few terms like "mole" and "legend", this jargon was his own invention.[5]

Term Definition[5]
Agent An espionage agent or spy; a citizen who is recruited by a foreign government to spy on his own country. This term should not be confused with a member of an intelligence service who recruits spies; they are referred to as intelligence officers or more particularly case officers.
Babysitters Bodyguards.
Burn Blackmail.
Circus The novel's name for SIS (Secret Intelligence Service), MI6, which collects foreign intelligence. "Circus" refers to the (fictional) location of its headquarters in Cambridge Circus, London.
Coat trailing An officer of one side acting as if he is a likely defector - drinking, complaining about his job, in the hope of attracting a recruitment offer from an enemy intelligence officer, with the object of recruiting the enemy as a double agent instead.
The Competition MI5, the Security Service, the UK's internal counter-espionage and counter-terrorism service, which the Circus also calls "The Security Mob".
The Cousins The US intelligence agencies in general and the CIA in particular.
Ferrets Technicians who find and remove hidden microphones, cameras, etc.
Honey-trap A sexual blackmailing operation.
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, including those who watch doors and verify that people entering secure areas are authorised to do so.
Lamplighters A section which provides surveillance and couriers.
Legend A false identity
Mailfist job An assassination operation.
Mole An agent recruited long before he has access to secret material, who subsequently works his way into the target government organisation. Le Carré has said this was a term actually used in the KGB; an equivalent term used in Western intelligence services was sleeper agent.
Mothers Secretaries and trusted typists serving the senior officers of the Circus.
Neighbours The Soviet intelligence services, in particular the KGB and Karla's fictional "Thirteenth Directorate".
Nuts and Bolts The engineering department who develop and manufacture espionage devices.
Pavement Artists Members of surveillance teams who inconspicuously follow people in public.
Persil The cleanest security category available, used of questionable foreigners, "Clean as fabric washed in Persil".
Reptile fund A slush fund, to provide payment for covert operations. (Attributed to Otto von Bismarck[6])
Scalphunters Handle assassination, blackmail, burglary, kidnap; the section was sidelined after Control's dismissal.
Shoemakers Forgers of documents and the like.
Sweat Interrogate
Wranglers Radio signal analysts and cryptographers; it derives from the term wrangler used of Cambridge University maths students.

The television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy also uses the term "burrower" for a researcher recruited from a university, a term taken from the novel's immediate sequel The Honourable Schoolboy.

In other media[edit]


In 1979 a TV adaptation of the same name was made by the BBC. It was a seven-part miniseries and was released in September of that year. The series was directed by John Irvin, produced by Jonathan Powell, and starred Alec Guinness as George Smiley. In the US, syndicated broadcasts and DVD releases compressed the seven-part UK episodes into six,[7] by shortening scenes and altering the narrative sequence.


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 adaptation.

In 2009, BBC Radio 4 also broadcast new dramatizations, by Shaun McKenna, of the eight George Smiley novels by John le Carré, featuring Simon Russell Beale as Smiley. 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.[8] The series was repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra, June/July 2016 and has since been released as a boxed set by the BBC.


Swedish director Tomas Alfredson made a film adaptation in 2011 based on a screenplay by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan. The film was released in the UK and Ireland on 16 September 2011, and in the United States on 9 December 2011. It included a cameo appearance by John le Carré in the Christmas party scene as the older man in the grey suit who stands suddenly to sing the Soviet anthem. The film received numerous Academy Award nominations including a nomination for Best Actor for Gary Oldman for his role as George Smiley. The film also starred Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam, Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr, and Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux.


  1. ^ Modern first editions – a set on Flickr
  2. ^ Locke, Richard (30 June 1974). "The Spy Who Spied on Spies". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 July 2015. 
  3. ^ Anthony, Andrew (1 November 2009). "Observer Profile: John le Carré: A man of great intelligence". The Observer. London. Retrieved 4 March 2010. 
  4. ^ "Le Carré betrayed by 'bad lot' spy Kim Philby", Channel 4 News. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
  5. ^ a b Le Carré, John; Matthew Joseph Bruccoli; Judith Baughman (2004). Conversations with John le Carré. USA: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 68–69. ISBN 1-57806-669-7. 
  6. ^ Daily Alta California 30 July 1890 — California Digital Newspaper Collection
  7. ^ Kung, Michelle (2011-12-02). "'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' Miniseries Director John Irvin on the New Film". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2014-12-26. the seven-episode series — which was condensed to six episodes for U.S. audiences 
  8. ^ "The Complete Smiley". BBC Radio 4. 23 May 2009. Retrieved 14 June 2009. 

External links[edit]