Together with The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), these novels form the Quest for Karla trilogy, which pits the elderly British superspy George Smiley against the Russian master spy and head of the Thirteenth Directorate, Karla. Karla’s agent in place (“mole”) in the British Secret Service (called the Circus after its central offices at Cambridge Circus) is Bill Haydon, Smiley’s lifelong colleague and friend; Karla’s one humanizing flaw, his love for his daughter, is not safe from Smiley’s probes and eventuates in his downfall. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy chronicles the discovery that there is a mole in the Circus, Smiley’s intricately and stubbornly complete researches to find the mole, and the carefully planned capture of “Gerald,” the mole’s trade name. In this novel, Smiley embarks on his quest to rid the Circus of a traitor; in The Honourable Schoolboy, his task is to rebuild the Secret Service; and in Smiley’s People, he concludes the quest for his “Black Grail” by precipitating Karla’s downfall and defection to the West.
In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré tells three principal stories, the tales of Jim Priddeaux, of George Smiley, and of the Circus’ decline. Priddeaux, the agent Haydon set up and betrayed in Czechoslovakia in Operation Testify to undermine the credibility of the service’s chief, Control, and send him into retirement, turns up repatriated as a language teacher at Thursgood’s, an undistinguished grammar school. There, he settles into a life of teaching and vigilance, nursing his wounded back and using the protocols of a field agent to monitor the security of his position. A loner, Jim nevertheless recruits the school’s wealthiest boy, Bill Roach, to become a watcher for him. Drawn into telling his tale to Smiley, Jim then stalks Smiley through the final stages of his search for the mole, and in the fullness of time, when Haydon has been interrogated and is about to be sent to Moscow, stealthily enters the secure training camp at Sarratt and executes Haydon by expertly breaking his neck. As the novel closes, Jim is back at Thursgood’s, still the subject of Roach’s watchfulness, carrying the burden of knowledge of his betrayer and of his own revenge.
The second narrative thread treats of George Smiley’s life, public and private, much of it presented retrospectively as Smiley shuttles between the present and the past, shoring up the fragments of his life. Having followed Control into retirement, Smiley finds his world deteriorating into a lethargic and irritable bachelorhood once his wife, Ann, departs with the latest in a string of lovers, mostly younger men, whose number also included Bill Haydon, with whom she spent the evening of the fated Operation Testify while Smiley was in Berlin. As le Carré unfolds the dismal world which Smiley inhabits, he establishes a prelude to the quest in the form of a summons delivered by Peter Guillam and the revelation by a field agent that events in Hong Kong lead to the inescapable conclusion that a senior member of Circus is, and has been for some time, a double agent in the ranks of Karla’s secret army. Responding to a request from the Ministry of Defense and reporting directly to Oliver Lacon, a Whitehall bureaucrat, Smiley retraces Control’s earlier investigations to find the mole. Smiley’s private world continues to surface in the remainder of the novel in his brief encounters with Ann, in others’ offhand...
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