Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was inspired by real events involving Harold “Kim” Philby, a talented and charming intelligence officer who had risen to the highest echelons of the British espionage establishment by the middle of the twentieth century. In 1951, however, two of Philby’s colleagues were revealed to be Soviet agents of long standing, and in 1963 Philby himself was unmasked as the “Third Man” who had helped the other two escape. Like them, he defected to the Soviet Union, dealing a severe blow to the prestige of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). John le Carré wrote the introduction to a book about the affair, The Philby Conspiracy (1969), by Bruce Page, David Leitch, and Phillip Knightley, and he went on to publish his own novelistic treatment in 1974. The same dilemma is posed by both factual and fictional events: As Lacon remarks to Smiley, “’It’s the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?’”
Readers of the novel might be forgiven for thinking that they have been presented with the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle—a puzzle made doubly difficult by the fact that they cannot guess what the final picture is supposed to look like. A master solver of puzzles himself, George Smiley acts as a surrogate for readers, who watch him carefully assemble the pieces one by one. When the revelation finally comes, Smiley realizes that, like everyone else, he had known all along that the traitor was Haydon. They had “tacitly shared that unexpressed half-knowledge which like an illness they hoped would go away if it was never . . . diagnosed.”
The handsome, sexually magnetic, multitalented Bill Haydon is regarded with awe by those who...
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