Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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][3]

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
First UK edition
AuthorJohn le Carré
Cover artistJerry Harpur[1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesGeorge Smiley /
The Quest for Karla
GenreSpy novel
PublisherHodder & Stoughton (UK)
Random House (USA)
Publication date
June 1974
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
LC ClassPZ4.L4526 Ti3 PR6062.E33
Followed byThe Honourable Schoolboy 


When Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy came out in 1974, revelations exposing the presence of Soviet double agents in Britain were still fresh in public memory. Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, and Kim Philby, later known as the Cambridge Five, had been exposed as KGB moles. The five had risen to very senior positions in branches of the British government. The book, based on the premise of uncovering a Soviet double agent in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), offers a novelisation of this period.[4] It is also set against the larger theme of the decline of British influence on the world stage after the Second World War, with the USA and the USSR emerging as the dominant superpowers leading into the period of the Cold War.[4]

David Cornwell, who wrote under the pseudonym John le Carré, worked as an intelligence officer for MI5 and MI6 (SIS) in the 1950s and early 1960s.[5] Senior SIS officer Kim Philby's defection to the USSR in 1963, and the consequent compromising of British agents, was a factor in the 1964 termination of Cornwell's intelligence career.[6][7] In the novel, the character of Bill Haydon, with his easy charm and strong social connections, bears a close resemblance to Philby.[5]


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was followed by The Honourable Schoolboy in 1977 and Smiley's People in 1979. The three novels together make up the "Karla Trilogy", named after Smiley's long-time opponent Karla, the head of Soviet foreign intelligence. These 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, codenamed Testify, ended in disaster with the capture and torture of agent Jim Prideaux. The failure 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 Circus. At Lacon's home they meet with Ricki Tarr, a Circus agent who had been missing for months and had been declared persona non grata upon suspicion of having defected to Moscow. Tarr tells them of the existence of a Soviet mole at the highest level of the Circus. The mole is codenamed 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 forcibly returned to Moscow. Tarr, realising someone in London had betrayed him, went on the run, eventually coming out to contact his former boss Guillam, the only person in the Circus he could trust.

Since Control died shortly after his forced retirement, Guillam and Smiley are the only former top operatives still alive who are above suspicion. The fact that they have been demoted and dismissed, respectively, as a result of Operation Testify is virtual proof that neither of them is a double agent.

Smiley accepts Lacon's request to begin his investigation in absolute secrecy. He soon focuses on the details of the Circus's best source of intelligence on the Soviet Union, codenamed Merlin. Merlin had been developed and vigorously sponsored, under an operation codenamed Witchcraft, by four ambitious senior Circus men, led by Percy Alleline. Alleline had subsequently been made the head of the Circus following Control's ousting after Testify. Smiley believes the mole Gerald must be one of these four: Alleline himself, Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase, or Bill Haydon. By examining classified documents surreptitiously provided by Lacon and Guillam, Smiley discovers that the operation has a 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 realises that the emissary must be 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. He tracks down Prideaux and other participants in the operation, whose details Control had hidden from him at the time. 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, 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, contrived by Karla to engineer Control's supplantation through Testify's failure, and thus protect the mole.

Esterhase, upon arriving to a meeting called by Guillam under a false pretext, is quickly detained. Smiley states that he is aware that Esterhase has been posing as a Russian mole, with Polyakov as his handler, ostensibly in order to provide cover for Merlin's emissary Polyakov. Smiley compels Esterhase into revealing the location of the safe house, through making him realise that not only is there a real Soviet mole embedded in the SIS, but also that Polyakov has not been "turned" to work in British interest pretending to run the "mole" Esterhase, and in fact remains Karla's agent. Tarr is sent to Paris where he passes a coded message to Alleline about "information crucial to the well-being of the Service". This triggers an 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 had been 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.


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 Oxford, he was a senior officer in the Circus, before being eased out upon Operation Testify's failure. He is called upon to investigate the presence of a Soviet mole in the Circus.
  • Percy Alleline: Chief of the Circus following Control's ousting. Alleline spent his early career in South America, northern Africa and India. He is seen to be vain and overambitious, and is despised by Control. Alleline is knighted in the course of the book in recognition of the quality of the intelligence provided by the source codenamed Merlin.
  • Roy Bland: Second in command to Bill Haydon of London Station. Recruited by Smiley at Oxford, he 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 the Circus.
  • Control: Former head of the Circus and now dead. Before the war he was a Cambridge don.
  • Toby Esterhase: He is the head of the lamplighters, the section of the Circus responsible for surveillance and wiretapping. Hungarian by birth, Esterhase is an anglophile with pretensions of being a British gentleman. He was recruited by Smiley as "a starving student in Vienna".
  • Peter Guillam: He is the head of the scalphunters, the section of the Circus used in operations that require physical action and/or violence, and is based out of Brixton. Son of a French businessman and an Englishwoman, he is a longtime associate of Smiley.
  • Bill Haydon: Commander of London Station, he has worked with the Circus since the war. A polymath, he was recruited at Oxford where he was a close companion of Prideaux. One of Ann Smiley's cousins, he has an affair with her, and this knowledge subsequently becomes widely known. One of the four who ran the double agent codenamed Merlin.
  • Oliver Lacon: A Permanent Secretary in Great Britain's Cabinet Office. Civilian overseer of the Circus. (A former Cambridge rowing blue.)
  • Mendel: Retired former Inspector in the Special Branch, he assists Smiley during his investigation. Frequently a go-between for Smiley and other members helping him investigate.
  • Jim Prideaux: His Circus codename was Jim Ellis. Raised abroad partially, he is first identified as a prospective recruit by fellow student Bill Haydon at Oxford. He was shot in Czechoslovakia during the collapse of Operation Testify. Former head of the scalphunters. Now teaches at a boys' prep school.
  • Connie Sachs: Former Russia analyst for the Circus, she is forced to retire, and now runs a rooming house in Oxford. Alcoholic, but with an excellent memory. She is said to have been modelled upon Milicent Bagot.
  • Miles Sercombe: The Government Minister to whom Lacon and the Circus are responsible. A distant cousin of Smiley's wife, he plays a peripheral role in Smiley's investigation. Not highly regarded.
  • Ricki Tarr: A field agent who supplies information that indicates that there is most likely a Soviet mole in the Circus. He was trained by Smiley. Works for Guillam as one of the scalphunters.


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy employs spy jargon that is presented as the authentic insider-speak of British Intelligence. Le Carré has noted that with the exception of a few terms like mole and legend this jargon was his own invention.[8] In some cases, terms used in the novel have subsequently entered espionage parlance.[5] For example, the terms mole,[9] implying a long-term spy, and honey trap,[10] implying a ploy in which an attractive person lures another into revealing information, were first introduced in this novel, and have only subsequently entered general usage.

Term Definition[8]
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. Mailfist might be the code word for such work or the compartmented information concerning the program that performs it.
Mole An agent recruited long before he has access to secret material, who subsequently works his way into the target government organisation. In his foreword to the 1991 edition, le Carré discloses that he may have been under the impression "mole" was "current KGB jargon" during his brief stint as an intelligence officer but that he can no longer say for certain; it is possible he actually invented the term himself. Francis Bacon used the word "mole" in the sense of "spy" in his 1641 Historie of the Reigne of King Henry the Seventh, but le Carré was not aware of Bacon's work while writing the book – the passage was pointed out to him later by a reader.
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[11])
Scalphunters Handle assassination, blackmail, burglary, kidnap; the section was sidelined after Control's dismissal.
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.

Critical response

In a review for The New York Times written upon the novel's release in 1974, critic Richard Locke called Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy "fluently written", noting that "it is full of vivid character sketches of secret agents and bureaucrats from all levels of British society, and the dialogue catches their voices well." He praised the novel's realism, calling the detailing of "the day to day activities of the intelligence service at home and abroad" convincing. He noted that the "scale and complexity of this novel are much greater than in any of Le Carré's previous books", while the "characterisation too has become much richer".[2]

An article published in in-house Central Intelligence Agency journal Studies in Intelligence, presumably written by agents under pseudonyms,[12] called it "one of the most enduring renderings of the profession".[3] It does question the "organisational compression" involved in the form of a large organisation, which the SIS would be, being reduced to a handful of senior operatives playing operational roles, but admits that this "works very well at moving the story along in print". However, the idea that a major counter-intelligence operation could be run without the knowledge of counter-intelligence professionals, an allusion to Smiley's investigation progressing in an undetected manner, is deemed an "intellectual stretch".[3] John Powers of NPR has called it the greatest spy story ever told, noting that it "offers the seductive fantasy of entering a secret world, one imagined with alluring richness".[13] Le Carré himself believes the novel to be among his best works.[6]

Allusions and references

In the book, Sarratt is a Circus facility, containing a training school for British spies and a holding centre for persons undergoing debriefing or interrogation or in quarantine. This is a reference to an actual village near Watford in which le Carré worked as a teenager in a department store.[5]

In other media


A TV adaptation of the same name was made by the BBC in 1979. 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. Ricki Tarr was played by Hywel Bennett. In the US, syndicated broadcasts and DVD releases compressed the seven-part UK episodes into six,[14] 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.[15] The series was repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra in June and 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. Bradford, Michael; Burridge, James (September 2012). "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: the Movie". Studies in Intelligence. Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency. 56 (3). Retrieved 14 May 2018.
  4. Ascherson, Neal (11 September 2011). "The real-life spies of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy". The Guardian. The Guardian. Retrieved 14 May 2018.
  5. Gordon, Corera. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: John Le Carre and reality". BBC. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  6. Anthony, Andrew (1 November 2009). "John le Carré: A man of great intelligence". The Guardian. The Observer. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  7. "Le Carré betrayed by 'bad lot' spy Kim Philby". Channel 4. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  8. 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.
  9. Shapiro, Fred R. (30 October 2006). The Yale Book of Quotations (illustrated ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 448. ISBN 978-0-300-10798-2. OCLC 66527213. Retrieved 13 May 2018. According to the Oxford English Dictionary "it is generally thought that the world of espionage adopted [the term mole] from Le Carré, rather than vice versa.
  10. Dickson, Paul (17 June 2014). "How authors from Dickens to Dr Seuss invented the words we use every day". The Guardian. The Guardian. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  11. Daily Alta California 30 July 1890 — California Digital Newspaper Collection
  12. Stock, Jon (3 May 2013). "CIA agents use pseudonyms to review spy fiction". The Telegraph. The Telegraph. Retrieved 14 May 2018.
  13. Powers, John (1 November 2011). "'Tinker, Tailor': The Greatest Spy Story Ever Told". NPR. NPR. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  14. Kung, Michelle (2 December 2011). "'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' Miniseries Director John Irvin on the New Film". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 26 December 2014. the seven-episode series — which was condensed to six episodes for U.S. audiences
  15. "The Complete Smiley". BBC Radio 4. 23 May 2009. Retrieved 14 June 2009.
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