Gimme my Tinker, Tailor! Right now!

To my considerable outrage, I just realized that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will NOT be opening tonight at a theater near me.

I’ve been waiting for this thing for a year — it’s the only movie I’ve been eager to see in much longer than that — and the release date has been put off again and again, and I was all ready for it to finally come out on Dec. 9… and it can’t be found.

I read that it was released in the UK three months ago. This is insane. I mean, I’d love to go back to England and see it, but that’s not really an option for me at the moment. I don’t hop the pond that often. It’s sort of a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So far. (I saw “The King’s Speech” at a theater in Oxford the night it opened in England — which, weirdly, was a week or so after it opened back in the States.)

Oh, well… in lieu of that, I’ll share with you this note I wrote today to my friend Hal Stevenson, before I realized the movie wasn’t being released here. Hal recently told me that he had read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold recently, and wanted to know more about le Carre and his work. Since I’m a huge fan (of his early work, anyway), I promised to share some thoughts on what else he might want to read. It’s not brilliant, original literary criticism (I call le Carre’s most acclaimed novel “awesome,” dude), but it gives you an idea to what extent I have been thinking about and eagerly anticipating this non-event.

So I share this now with you as well, as I contemplate going home and watching the original BBC series of “Tinker, Tailor,” which I own on DVD. So there, Hollywood…


I haven’t forgotten to write to you about John le Carre..

It’s fitting that I do so today, since the new movie, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” comes out tonight.

I believe you said you had read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Well, that was an awesome book. As literature, it’s pure and clean and complete. If you’ve read that, you’ve read THE quintessential Cold War novel. You could stop there, if you wanted to. But who would want to?

I don’t think le Carre has written anything technically better than that novel. But he’s written stuff I enjoyed more.

The Alec Leamas novel is cold, and hard. It’s like a diamond. I can find no fault with it. But while I think it speaks profoundly to the human condition, some of his other novels are… warmer. They let you care about the characters more, get into them more.

For instance, George Smiley appears in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, but as a peripheral character. And he comes across as a sort of reluctant agent of the cold pragmatism of Control, who duplicitously sent Leamas on this suicidal errand.

After that, le Carre decided to be more generous to Smiley. He had already been the protagonist of le Carre’s two books before The Spy Who Came In From the Cold — Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. Those were short murder mysteries in the Agatha Christie mold. That Smiley worked in intelligence was almost incidental.

But Smiley comes to full-blown life in the trilogy that begins with Tinker, Tailor. That’s the start of what has come to be known as “The Quest for Karla.” Here are some brief thoughts on the three books:

  1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – At the outset of this novel, George is already in retirement, against his will. He and the head of “the Circus” (le Carre’s euphemism for MI6, based in its supposed location near Cambridge Circus in London), known only as Control, were both canned after an operation blew up disastrously. But a Foreign Office official comes to George with evidence that Control was done in by a mole (this novel is responsible for that term entering the language) who had insinuated himself to the very top of the Circus, and was actually running the whole show now on behalf of Moscow. Smiley begins a process of backtracking through his own life and career and former colleagues as he sets a trap for the mole, unofficially, from the outside. The mole, it is known, is the agent of Karla, a mysterious figure who sort of runs his own show deep within the KGB. Karla is Smiley’s lifelong nemesis, sort of his Moby Dick. Smiley doesn’t know who the traitor is until the end – beyond the fact that it will be one of his closest associates, someone he’s known and trusted his whole adult life. The novel is about these relationships, and what they mean to Smiley, as much as it is about spies. That’s a hallmark of le Carre’s work.
  2. The Honourable Schoolboy – This second novel in the trilogy is very different from the other two. It’s sweeping, and adventurous and cinematic. The ironic thing about it is that it’s the only one that hasn’t been made into a movie (or, more accurately, TV series), even though it reads most like a movie script. It takes place after Smiley has exposed the mole, and turned the Circus inside out. George has been brought back officially into service to head the new, demoralized Circus. Trying to build the agency back up and get some decent intelligence coming in, Smiley pursues a trail of money that should lead to a top Soviet agent – another of Karla’s hand-picked people – in Hong Kong. Lacking professionals on staff he can trust, he sends an old freelance hand – a journalist named Jerry Westerby, who is sort of a half-amateur gentleman spy – to track down this second Karla agent. Westerby does so against the background of exotic locales. You get the sense that le Carre was trying to be a sort of Hollywood version of Joseph Conrad here. There is action, to an extent that is unlike le Carre, who tends to be more cerebral. On the whole, the novel isn’t as satisfying, since it’s more about Westerby and his conflicts than it is about Smiley and the characters you’ve come to care about in Tinker, Tailor.
  3. Smiley’s People – This one is everything The Honourable Schoolboy wasn’t. It’s like a reunion from the first book, and is the climactic act in Smiley’s lifelong contest with Karla. At the outset, George is in exile again from the service after the fiasco in Hong Kong. But an old Russian general, who had spied for Britain in Moscow, has been murdered in London. The Circus doesn’t want to be caught within miles of the general or his old émigré friends, and asks George to come in quietly, unofficially, and lay the general’s affairs to rest – tie up loose ends, pour oil on the waters. George discovers that the general was killed because he had possessed a secret that could be Karla’s undoing. And he spends the rest of the novel making the rounds of old friends, pulling together the strands of a noose around Karla’s neck. But as he gets closer, he comes to doubt whether that’s even what he wants to do.

Moral ambiguity is Smiley’s constant companion. He’s a good and decent man who finds himself doing abhorrent things in the service of his ideals. That is a theme in everything le Carre writes, even when Smiley doesn’t appear.

And he does NOT appear in subsequent novels, except in retrospect in The Secret Pilgrim. That was OK (as were A Perfect Spy and The Constant Gardener), but here are what I think are the best of le Carre’s post-Smiley novels:

  • The Russia House – The protagonist is so much like Jerry Westerby that it’s like le Carre saw this novel as a do-over, an attempt to get that character right this time. An amateur is recruited to act on behalf of British intelligence to make contact with a source at the heart of the Soviet nuclear weapons program – a source that insists upon dealing with no one else. But can the agent himself be trusted? And is the source for real?
  • The Night Manager – This is one you can read and enjoy without having read any other le Carre novel. It stands alone, like “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” but its tone is the opposite. There’s nothing cold about it. It’s very human. The protagonist is an ex-commando who, for very personal reasons, offers his services to the government to get close to, and bring down, “the worst man in the world” – a billionaire British arms dealer who sells to anyone with the right price. Not to be a plot spoiler, but it’s more of a feel-good book than almost anything else le Carre has written – sort of the opposite of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold in that regard.

I probably like those because I have pedestrian tastes. They’re not as dark as some of le Carre’s critically acclaimed work — certainly not as dark as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. By comparison, these are sentimental, but I like them.

Well, that’s an overview. I hope you’ll read some of these; I’d enjoy discussing them with you…

Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Is Gary Oldman as good? WHO KNOWS? YOU CAN'T TELL BY ME!!!!

25 thoughts on “Gimme my Tinker, Tailor! Right now!

  1. Brad

    You want to know what Hollywood thinks of my intelligence? Here’s what — the idiotic, slam-bang “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” will probably be showing on 10 screens in the Midlands next week. Just see if it doesn’t. Because THAT’S what Hollywood thinks of my intelligence, taste, and discernment. Yours, too, but I’m more outraged about me…

  2. Phillip

    Brad, it’s coming to the Nick in January…I know that’s not near where you live, but it’s not our fault that you choose to live in cultureless Republican-World (i.e., Lexington County). Come on back to the cool side of town, Brad!

    But at least it IS close to your work place.

  3. Brad

    That’s great to know… but I’m still completely stunned if it’s really not going to make a commercial appearance here.

    And insulted. Really insulted. Oh, yeah, we’ll send it to your tiny art house, because there aren’t enough people there for us to make money on this…

  4. Brad

    Oh, and Kathryn — if I do that, I’ll have to take a roundabout route and double back a couple of times, sudden-like.

    Can’t be too careful. They have a full dossier on me.

  5. `Kathryn Fenner

    “And insulted. Really insulted. Oh, yeah, we’ll send it to your tiny art house, because there aren’t enough people there for us to make money on this…”

    First they came for classical music programming on listener-supported public radio, and I said nothing, then they came for….

  6. `Kathryn Fenner

    Dunno, Steven? Forgot the punchlines?

    Actually, Phillip was obviously overlooking many of the cool aspects of the West Bank: The Riverwalk, Terra, Cafe Strudel, etc., on State St., Conundrum and Bill’s Pickin’ Parlor which are far cooler than anything this side o’ town….it does kinda peter out –warm up?– coolness-wise as one approaches the spacious lawns and split levels of Brad’s neighborhood….Another Pleasant Valley Sunday…..

  7. Ralph Hightower

    My wife and I have gotten hooked on some spy-based TV series on cable.

    Burn Notice is about a former CIA spy that has been “outed” or burned and takes free lance jobs to do what’s right. Right now, there are twists within twists of plots.

    Covert Affairs is about a female spy at the CIA who is assigned to various jobs, most often, overseas.

    But with TV series, there becomes some predictably, such as when things go KA-BOOM!

  8. Phillip

    @Kathryn: Good point about all those places, although they’re barely in Lexington County and I bet most people that walk through their doors (with possible exception of Pickin Parlor) cross the river to do so. Though I wouldn’t say they’re all “cooler” than anything on the east side of the river (almost all galleries, for example, 701 Whaley, etc. are in Cola proper) I still was unjustly overlooking them in my overly smug dismissal of Lexington County. And there’s an interesting new theater at Midlands Tech in Irmo that’s looks interesting and just needs good programming.

  9. Steven Davis

    Along with “cool” galleries and theaters, you get the higher taxes and higher crime rates. Maybe that’s why all of the nicer neighborhoods there are in gated communities… to keep the riffraff out. I just know that Shandon and Forest Acres were nice at one time, now they’re “the edge of the hood” and it’s not uncommon to have gang initiations take place in either community. At least I can leave items out in my yard overnight or leave my car doors unlocked overnight without someone walking off with the contents. Moving out of Richland County was one of the smartest decisions I’ve made since living here.

  10. Steven Davis

    Kathryn – so now you’re against “spacious lawns”? Is it just not urban enough for you? I mean I understand if you think that my backyard is better suited for a taxpayer funded homeless shelter than a place for my dogs to run, but I prefer the dogs. To compromise, I wouldn’t have a problem with a taxpayer funded homeless shelter for dogs.

  11. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ Steven Davis: Forest Acres is a town, formed largely to avoid paying its fair share of the costs of the urban community–did you mean Forest Lake? Shandon is a neighborhood still very much sought after and high-priced. I daresay that the residents of Heathwood, Hollywood-Rose Hill and Wales Garden, as well as most real estate professionals would contest your statement that all of the nicer neighborhoods are gated.

    I used to represent juveniles, and there were plenty of “gangstas” in the country and nicer suburbs. One kid lived in Sandy Run, purported to be a member of the Black Gangster Disciples, and had a large Confederate flag hanging over his bed. The confusion of teen culture nowadays…

    Now where you got the idea that I have anything against “spacious lawns” just because I pointed out that they are not “cool”– I wish I had one for my dogs to run on, and room to have a garden–but in general the environmental cost is very high of maintaining grass, added to the additional road length and distance driven over them, vs. a walkably dense neighborhood. I’d prefer more dog parks–it’s more fun to watch dogs cavort together than to have some lone dog or two listlessly milling about a single backyard.

    I have had two planters on my front porch for a while now, and they haven’t walked off. Now, maybe if I had a lot of “yard art”–some lawn fannies, whirligigs and gnomes?

  12. Steven Davis

    @Kathryn -Sure Shandon and Forrest Acres are sought after, they’re also no longer “safe” areas. In the past 5-6 years home invasions and burglaries are common in both locations.

    So you can’t have both? A large yard and a dog park? Because if so I’m doing things wrong since my dogs have both. Are you saying that you have two big dogs and no yard for them to exercise in? Maybe next time you should get lap dogs that can exercise indoors or in a small courtyard. Or better yet, at cat.

    What “environmental costs”? You mean mowing once a week? Get an electric or manual mower. Have you considered selling your home and moving into one of the Vista/Innovista condo’s?

    Planters don’t walk off because they’re of no value to those who steal. Leave a rake, mower, shovel or any other thing that has minimal value out there and it won’t be there in the morning. But then you do live in a more “protected” neighborhood than the average Shandon or Forest Acre citizen.


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