The Singular Achievement of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

No spy novel has captured England—or the human capacity for duplicity—like John le Carré’s hunt for the mole.

Alec McGuinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
AF archive / Alamy

My uncle once told me about a visit he made to an English friend of his, who was going through a divorce. “Right,” said this friend, “I’ve got a bottle of whiskey and the DVD of Tinker Tailor ... We’re going to stay up all night and watch the whole thing.”

Not the first choice, one might think, for someone in need of a bit of cheering up. Intricate, creepingly paced, almost violently understated, and set in an England sunk to Eastern Bloc levels of shabbiness and rainy suspicion, the 1979 BBC dramatization of John le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is neither heartwarming nor especially reassuring about men and women. Something of a bummer, in fact.

But Tinker Tailor is not like other TV shows: It exists, now, at the level of an English myth. I was 11 years old, at a boarding school in Suffolk, England, when I first watched it. The cultured murmurings of the spies; the offstage brutality; the layers upon layers of duplicity; the extraordinary fact that the broken MI6 agent Jim Prideaux goes into hiding as a teacher at a prep school just like mine, another cold and noisy factory of double-natured Englishmen—it all implanted itself in my brain like an engram. Somewhere in MI6, somewhere near the very top, there is a traitor—a mole, in the argot of le Carré’s spyworld. He’s been there for years, decades even; the damage is profound; the damage is already done; and only by going backwards, into the files, into the circuits of memory, only by reversing appearances and turning suppositions inside out, can le Carré’s anti- or un-hero, George Smiley, find his way to the truth. This is why my uncle’s suffering friend needed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Under the veneer of one country, another country altogether.

Le Carré, who died on Saturday at the age of 89, wrote many novels, on many themes, but for me Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will always be his greatest work. He wasn’t just a medicine man of the English imagination; he was a stylist, too. Perfectly weighted descriptive sentences, with just a flicker of dour lyricism. Open the book at random: “The rain rolled like gun-smoke down the brown combes of the Quantocks, then raced across the empty cricket fields into the sandstone of the crumbling facades.” That’s Thursgood’s Academy, where Prideaux teaches. Rain ... gun ... empty ... crumbling facades. It’s all in there. Decline and fall. Weave old England’s winding-sheet. I can hear the lazy cawing of the rooks around the school grounds, those ancient, sardonic daubs of sound in a rheumy English landscape—I hear it and I become a little Manchurian candidate. I’m transported: a visitant, a spy in my own life.