Rear-view review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

John le Carré
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1974)tinker-tailor-1

Some years ago, the London branch of an American investment bank was busy ‘migrating’ financial data from one computer to another. In the process, it made the distressing discovery that erroneous information some years earlier had led the bank to believe it was a million or more pounds better off than was, in fact, the case.

I wrote a line or two in the Guardian suggesting that everyone would have been a lot happier had the data stayed on the old computer and the discrepancy never been discovered. The bank could have continued acting richer than it actually was, to the benefit of staff and shareholders.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens with MI6 (‘the Circus’) on a roll. An exhausted and scandal-ridden old regime has been replaced with dynamic new management that has signed up a solid-gold top-category Soviet double agent, codenamed ‘Merlin’.

Everyone loves the Circus: Whitehall, the responsible ministers, and the Americans. Into this acre of contentment wanders a low-grade tough-guy agent, Ricki Tarr, presumed to have defected to Moscow but actually on the run having stumbled across a potentially fatal secret.

As with the investment bank’s ‘migrated’ data, it may have been a lot easier had he not done so.

Tarr’s love/sex affair with a Russian official, Irina, in Hong Kong produced the sort of pillow talk to which even James Bond was never party. Irina begins by mentioning the chief agent runner at KGB headquarters, ‘Moscow Centre’: ‘Have you heard of Karla? He is an old fox, the most cunning in the Centre, the most secret, even his name is not one that Russians understand.’

There are ‘moles’, she goes on, long-term sleeper agents, round the world, planted by Karla and working directly for him. One is very near the top of the Circus: ‘The mole in London … was known by the code-name Gerald. He had been recruited by Karla and was the object of extreme conspiracy.’

Despite Tarr’s rackety past, his testimony is believed by Oliver Lacon, intelligence supremo at the Cabinet Office. Lacon, in turn, recalls to the colours George Smiley, thrown out in the purge of the old regime, to track down the mole, pretty much refusing to take no for an answer: ‘There’s always a part of us that belongs to the public domain, isn’t there? The social contract cuts both ways, you always knew that, I’m sure.’

One of just four people in MI6 could be ‘Gerald’: the new chief Percy Alleline, his deputy Bill Haydon, the head of east European networks Roy Bland, and general dogsbody Toby Esterhase. Lacon’s priority is to have the mole business cleaned up as soon as possible, to allow the Circus to get back to exploiting Merlin and his ‘intelligence product’, codenamed Witchcraft.tinker-tailor-2

Spoiler alert, but Smiley discovers the awful truth that not only does the Circus have a highly-placed mole, but that the mole and Witchcraft are inextricably linked, in that the mole’s supposed meetings with Merlin to collect Witchcraft material are, in fact, cover for the mole to supply Merlin (a loyal KGB officer) with the Circus’s own secrets.

Worse, when the hoped-for deal with the Americans is finalised, Merlin will provide a direct conduit from Washington to Moscow.

A thuggish, Heath-era Minister is unamused when Smiley breaks the bad news: ‘That Witchcraft stuff is bloody marvellous! A month ago, it was buying us the moon. Now we’re disappearing up our orifices and saying the Russians are cooking it for us. What the hell’s happening?’

‘Well, I don’t think that’s quite as illogical as it sounds, as a matter of fact,’ responds Smiley. ‘After all, we’ve run the odd Russian network from time to time, and though I say it myself, we ran them rather well. We gave them the best material we could afford. Rocketry, war planning … We tossed them agents we could do without, we gave them good communications, safed their courier links, cleared the air for their signals so that we could listen to them.’

So fanatical had the Circus become about Merlin that this possibility crossed few people’s minds. As Smiley remarked: ‘The Cabinet Office files are full of plaudits for the brave new men of Cambridge Circus [MI6 HQ] who have finally broken the jinx.’

Indeed, the tiny number of Merlin-sceptics were driven out of the Circus.

He added, later: ‘It is the perfect fix, you see that … It makes everyone wrong who’s right.’

The personalities of the four suspects are finely drawn: bullying, unimaginative Alleline; Bland, where we are never sure where his cover as a beery, left-wing academic ends and reality begins; and Esterhase, whose self-seeking amorality is oddly endearing.

Then there is Bill Haydon. Smiley’s right-hand man, Peter Guillaum, reflects: ‘Haydon was of that unrepeatable, fading Circus generation … which had lived a dozen leisured lives to his own hasty one, and still, 30 years later, gave the Circus its dying flavour of adventure.’

Smiley himself tells us of Haydon: ‘He was of the pre-war set that seemed to have vanished for good, which managed to be disreputable and high-minded at the same time.’tinker-tailor-3

Detail is not skimped on lesser characters, such as the arthritic former head of research, Connie Sachs: ‘Her brothers were dons, Smiley remembered, her father was a professor of something. Control [Alleline’s predecessor] had met her at bridge and invented a job for her.’

There is good local detail as well. A part-time agent returns from Czechoslovakia: ‘Restaurant, he explained, meant bar. Whereas bar in Czecho meant nightclub, which was rum.’

And tantalising sidelights are thrown on the era in which it was written: ‘The same night, Peter Guillaum drove west, clean across England to Liverpool … It was still dark when the Irish ferry sailed. There were soldiers and police everywhere: this war, the last, the one before.’

As to the precise dates, on publication Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was set pretty much contemporaneously. Similarly, the autumn 1979 BBC TV adaptation was supposed to be happening more or less in 1979, although having been filmed in the Winter of Discontent we are treated to scenes shot on snowbound motorways with lorries stranded on the hard shoulder.

Later, chiefly in The Secret Pilgrim, le Carré’s 1990 loose collection of spy yarns, we learn that the unmasking of the mole occurred in the autumn of 1973.

Is the novel relevant today? I’d say so. The specifics of the Cold War may have gone, but the book remains a brilliant allegory of the British Establishment’s endless search for a one-off, silver-bullet solution that will put the great back into Britain, sort out our political and economic problems, and get us back in with the Americans.

This search is largely a doomed quest, as shown by a range of failed initiatives from joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism to joining the invasion of Iraq.

And the mole’s identity?

I’ll leave the last word to Smiley: ‘He knew, of course. He had always known it was Bill.’


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One thought on “Rear-view review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

  1. I don’t disagree with the choice of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. The book is rich in detail and character. Readers are introduced to the way information has to be checked to assess its accuracy or whether it has been planted by the enemy to distract. (I wonder whether this is now done by computer algorithm, which would make the process faster but still possibly lead to chronic failure).

    As an aperitif, I would recommend ‘The Spy who Came in from the Cold’. Leaner but much more brutal, exposing how the US and UK would use ex-Nazis, how someone with Nazi sympathies could thrive in a Communist totalitarian state and how intelligence services treat their agents as pawns to be sacrificed if necessary to torture and murder.

    Your suggestion that the novel is relevant today is correct. The book is set in the 70s when the intelligence services and groups within the military tried to intimidate a Labour PM Harold Wilson into thinking a military coup was imminent and to undermine a peace deal in Northern Ireland. We are again entering an era when the intelligence services are likely to be opposed to the policies of a democratically elected government, either one that supports Brexit or one that is opposed to the illegal wars in the Middle East.


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