June 17, 1974—A decade after making his first career splash with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, former British intelligence officer David Cornwell—better known by the pseudonym John le Carre—reached what is probably the artistic zenith of his career with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. At least partly inspired by the treason of Kim Philby, the novel popularized the term “mole” to denote the particular nature of the latter’s offense: a highly placed enemy at the heart of a national intelligence service.
So successful was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that it spawned a 1979 TV miniseries starring Alec Guinness (pictured here) and a more recent film starring Gary Oldman. Both adaptations gave the lead actors one of their most prized roles as le Carre’s donnish spymaster George Smiley. The spy thriller also was the opening novel in a trilogy, The Quest for Karla, in which Smiley pursues his cunning, ruthless counterpart at Soviet intelligence.
“Karla”’s double agent at the highest levels of British intelligence engages in a devastating series of national and personal betrayals with implications not just for Britain agents and their minders but also for their American “cousins.” The damage was similar to that perpetrated by the spy ring recruited at Cambridge in the 1930s and centered around Philby, the highest-ranking British intelligence officer to serve the Soviet Union as a double agent.
Bill Haydon in Tinker contains characteristics of three other notorious spies who joined the Communist Party while at Cambridge in the 1930s—Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean—but Philby, another spy with upper-class connections, a famous father specializing in Arab studies, and links to U.S. intelligence, was the most obvious model for the character. Le Carre recalled, in an interview with Jon Snow of Britain's Channel 4 a few years ago, that he had special reason to loathe Philby, "a bad lot": the novelist, before his writing days, had used the cover of a British diplomat to run agents and lure defectors in Germany—until Philby blew his cover in the early 1960s. Le Carre would not meet the dying double agent in Russia in 1988 because of his memories of a man whom he "wouldn't have trusted...with my cat for the weekend."
Oddly enough, I had read the last two-thirds of The Quest for Karla, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People, more than 30 years ago, but not Tinker until I began researching this post. I discovered that inadvertently, I had saved the best for last. Le Carre had introduced Smiley in two mysteries written in the early 1960s, Call for the Dead,” and A Murder of Quality, and part of the compulsive power of Tinker is simply as a whodunit. Cashiered from the highest levels of British intelligence, “Circus” (so nicknamed for the location of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, at Cambridge Circus in London) after a failed operation, Smiley is now called out of retirement, because he has no connection to the suspected current treachery, to ferret out the mole among four principals in Circus who are code-named Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Poor Man.
Although the propulsive thrust of the novel came from adhering to the detective and spy genres, its richness derived from its depictions of the intelligence profession as half-calling, half-bureaucracy. The high priests of the intelligence services in the book struggle with loss of faith in their mission, even as they cling to the mysteries at the heart of their work. At the same time, rather than the dashing derring-do of a James Bond, they engage in pitched turf battles with each other, in memos replete with their own in-house vocabulary, such as “lamplighters” (a section that provided surveillance and couriers), “babysitters” (guardians of safe houses used to accommodate defectors) and “scalphunters” (strong-arm men responsible for assassination, burglary, abduction, and the like).
James Wood, in How Fiction Works, criticizes le Carre’s form of “commercial realism,” terming one passage from Smiley’s People “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” That criticism is itself too clever by half. Seldom in the history of the spy story—a genre that has produced other notables such as Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene—has a writer brought to the form such precise attention to atmosphere and almost Dickensian characterization.
The one problem I have with le Carre’s work, actually, is its Anti-Americanism. In his novels—especially with the passing of the years, when the Soviet Union at least reminded him that another political and economic system could rival and surpass the capitalist West in ruthlessness—the United States looms balefully large. The moral ambiguity between the two Cold War superpowers, as strong an element as the weather in these novels, often shades into moral relativism.
The novelist has been at pains to deny it, saying that it’s not Americans he resents but their government. Some might find his vitriolic criticism of the foreign-policy adventurism of the Bush administration bracing. But even his early spy novels, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and A Small Town in Germany, were written with liberal Democrats in the White House and controlling the American intelligence services.
And consider this: If he finds Americans as individuals all right, why do you seldom if ever find a good one in his work? Why are they often depicted as outright villains? Even in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, why is the traitor’s eventual explanation of his turn to the Soviet Union (“The United States is no longer capable of undertaking its own revolution”) regarded by Smiley in this way: “it was the tone, rather than the music, that alienated him”?