1973, England. The British Secret Service finds itself in challenging circumstances. A botched operation in Czechoslovakia has resulted in the capture and torture of the government spy, Prideaux. The British intelligence agency, referred to as ‘the Circus’, negotiate a deal to have him returned to England and the matter is swiftly swept under the rug. Enter retired officer George Smiley, ‘small, podgy and at best middle-aged’ – he isn’t the British spy archetype. Smiley, once a senior member of the Circus, is recruited by his former prodigy Peter Guilllam to investigate the possibility of a mole being involved in the failed operation. The suspects are narrowed down to four high-ranking personnel in the Circus, all assigned codenames based on an old nursery rhyme: Percy Alleline is Tinker, Bill Haydon is Tailor, Roy Bland is Soldier and Toby Esterhase is Poorman. Smiley must use all his wits to coax out the double agent and reveal their true motivations.
Le Carré uses a simplistic vocabulary in his writing, creating an easily accessible narrative full of intrigue and suspense. Arguably the perfect spy-thriller, it is a book that proves entertaining for any teen or adult reader. It is also noteworthy that the novel is based firmly in reality, building on Le Carré’s personal experience of espionage rather than promoting the unrealistic luxury that is present in the work of Fleming.
How does George Smiley physically contrast stereotypical spies?
How is Smiley treated by the Circus? Is he rewarded for his service? What is Le Carré trying to show through this?
How does the application of a children’s rhyme provide contrast to the premise of the story? What does Le Carré’s choice of codenames imply about the concept of them?
What does Smiley’s marriage suggest about him as a character?
Were you surprised by the reveal of the double-agent and the subsequent events? Tinker-Tailor-Soldier-Spy-Discussion-Questions.pdf
Ricki Tarr sends a false message to the potential moles to act as bait and draw out the true culprit. The message encourages them to go to the safe house used by USSR spies. When Bill Haydon arrives alone, Smiley knows that he’s got his man. Guillam and Smiley begin interrogating Haydon, learning that Karla (Smiley’s counterpart in Soviet intelligence) recruited him as a double agent. Haydon decided to accept Karla’s offer after he started to disprove of Britain’s political decisions.
Smiley and Guillam start making preparations to exchange Haydon for the captured British spies in a trade with the Soviets. Haydon is assassinated before the deal is carried out. Although not stated, it is strongly implied that Prideaux was the killer. The novel ends with Smiley’s wife returning to the family home and Smiley being reappointed to the Circus.
John le Carré is a pseudonym used by David Cornwell.
Le Carré had first-hand experience working for British intelligence.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy first introduced the term ‘mole’ referring to a double agent, to the public.