John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a best-selling novel that follows a formula for success. This formula helps to teach us about some interesting points about bestsellers. This essay will show three aspects of the formula that is used to help learn more about best-selling novels. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was written by an author who practices in the field that he writes about, was written at a time when certain historical events in Britain revolved around the same topic as the novel, and shows the author's use of a character that recurs through several novels to attract readers to this book.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy belongs to a category where the author writes about a profession that he once practiced or is currently practicing. The fact that the author could possibly have an inside view into the profession draws readers to the novel because it puts the reader in a position where they feel more in touch with what is happening. There is a small group of authors who belong to this category. Le Carre sets the reader in the shoes of a person working in the world of espionage by describing various techniques, using inside terminology appropriate to the field, and showing all aspects of the job. He doesn't just show the flashy action/adventure many readers see in such works as the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming.
At the age of sixteen, le Carre fled to Europe to escape his father and the public school system. There he studied languages, developing a mastery of German. When he finally returned to England, he joined the army. He landed a job in army intelligence because of his skill in languages. There he performed such jobs as debriefing British officers and interviewing refugees. It is uncertain that if during this time the British Secret Service recruited him. He officially joined the British Foreign Service in 1958. He has never been forthcoming about whether he actually served as an undercover agent for many years, though he does admit to having inside information about the profession (Cobbs 2-3). In an interview with London's Daily Telegraph magazine, le Carre told James Cameron the following when asked if he had been "at one time on the game himself": "Look at it like this. If you or I write a novel about a brothel-keeper people wouldn't assume that we'd been brothel keepers" (Cameron 27). Even after more than thirty years, le Carre still continues to be very vague about whether or not he was truly a spy (Cobbs 7).
The name John le Carre is a pseudonym for David Cornwell. The author chose a penname because Foreign Service officials were discouraged from publishing under their own names. At the time he began writing, he still worked for the Foreign Office, and anonymity was essential (Modern Crimes 104). Le Carre has never hidden behind this name, however. He only uses it when writing professionally (Cobbs 14).
Other authors that belong to this category include Robin Cook, John Grisham, and Ian Fleming. Robin Cook is an ophthalmic surgeon, and all but two of his novels published are medical murder mysteries. He allows the reader to feel as if they are knowledgeable in the subject of medicine. Novels such as Cook's Fatal Cure allow the reader see what goes on in the financial side between hospitals, physicians, and insurance organizations from an inside perspective.
John Grisham, another one of these authors, writes legal thrillers. He attended law school at the University of Mississippi and began to practice criminal law upon his graduation. Shortly thereafter, he became involved in politics and switched to civil law (Merriman, Brief Biography). This has influenced Grisham's writing. In one example of his work, The Firm, a young lawyer is "drawn to a successful law firm in Memphis where the perks are good--but the secrets are deadly" (Grisham, The Firm).
While these best-selling authors are more modern, one prime example from the 1960s more closely related to le Carre: Ian Fleming. Fleming was very successful with two James Bond novels during the 1960s. He hit the bestsellers list with You Only Live Twice in 1964 (Maloney, Bibliographic Description) and The Man with the Golden Gun in 1965 (Johnson, Bibliographic Description). Fleming's spy novels were successful due in part to his involvement with the British Foreign Office. Just before World War II, he gathered information about Russia and their possibility of being an ally during the War. He later served as the Director of Naval Intelligence and received training as a spy (Maloney, Brief Biography).
Le Carre uses nomenclature that shows the serious side of espionage, connecting to the reader's desire for danger. This terminology makes the reader feel as if they are part of the spy field. The novel refers to espionage as "tradecraft", and how an individual agent practices this is his "handwriting". "Scalphunters" go out in search of foreign agents to buy off, or "turn". These are only a few examples of the jargon used by le Carre to orient the reader into espionage (Merry, 211). The use of this language teaches us more about how an inside view into the field truly gives the reader a feel for knowing more about the profession than they actually do.
The use of historical events that serve as a precursor for the novel is a second category to which Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy belongs. The idea that there were moles, or foreign spies, within the British Secret Service began to surface in the early 1950s. In 1951, two Foreign Office officials, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, fled to Moscow just before they were to be revealed as Soviet agents (Denning 118-120). These events were a shock to national pride and security. The men serving in high positions were not what they seemed, and many wondered how far the disloyalty would go (Lewis 120). This situation also occurs in the novel, when the patriotic spy Jim Prideaux refuses to believe that anyone in the Circus, or secret service, could possibly be a double agent. George Smiley, the agent trying to find the mole, replies: "We've turned enough other members of other outfits: Russians, Poles, Czechs, French. Even the odd Americans. What's so special about the British, all of a sudden?" (le Carre 284). The attitude of Prideaux is representative of the way the British public felt. Le Carre shows, through Smiley, that the British should not be too surprised by the events that have transpired.
After this, a rumor surfaced that there was a third agent involved with the two that had fled. Kim Philby, a lifelong British agent, was asked to resign by the Foreign Secretary because of his friendship to Burgess, but was rehired several years later when in was stated there was no evidence linking him to these men. He continued to work undercover for the British as a journalist until 1962, when a defected KGB officer revealed that Philby worked for the Soviets. It was then that he fled to Moscow. He had worked for almost 30 years as a Soviet spy (Denning 118-120). This case became the basis for the novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Despite the revelation of this third person spying for the Soviets, there was still rumor of a fourth man. Ten years after the defection of Philby, Sir Anthony Blunt, a distinguished art historian and official art advisor for the queen, revealed himself as a Soviet spy and fled to Moscow. These scandals were highly publicized throughout Britain, causing a great deal of both fascination and horror within the general public (Cobbs, 104).
The unmasking of Blunt coincided with the publication and release of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1974. Most critics, along with much of the general public, were quick to associate the main character, Bill Haydon, with Philby (Cobbs, 104). Le Carre's novel, along with the media hype surrounding the case, shows how historical events associated with a novel can lead to public interest in these novels. Much of the talk revolved around the similarities between Philby and Haydon. A closer look, however, shows that Philby might not have been the only model for Haydon. The other three traitors, Blunt, Burgess, and Maclean, also contributed to le Carre's description of Haydon. Burgess was known for his bisexuality, a characteristic seen in Haydon, where Philby was the only one of the four traitors that was purely heterosexual. Blunt, too, was an art lover, as seen by his position in the British Secret Service, and Haydon shared this same affection for art (Cobbs, 105).
The character of Bill Haydon was compared closely to Kim Philby because, in 1968 le Carre wrote an introduction to The Philby Conspiracy by Page, Leitch, and Kinghtley, and this introduction was widely discussed. Le Carre does not like Philby, and the introduction and subsequent interviews prove this. In an interview with James Cameron in 1974, le Carre expresses his feelings about Philby: "I feel Philby was essentially dead wrong all the way through all the time?His consistent objective was to get rid of the values and conditions I hold to be all right; and I don't go along with it" (Aronoff, 46). From these events, we learn that the public has a general interest in what goes on around them, especially when it involves interests of national security. Novels rumored to be based on events that actually happened draw the attention of the media and thus the public.
A third category to which Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy belongs is one where a character recurs throughout several novels by the same author. The character of George Smiley is used in eight of le Carre's fifteen novels published through 1999. Smiley plays a major role in six of these, including Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley's People, and The Secret Pilgrim. He is used as a minor character in two other books: The Looking Glass War and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Monaghan 123-124). Le Carre uses Smiley to guide the reader through the novel's complex plots. One of Smiley's functions is to "act as a central intellect in whom the reader has so much confidence that when Smiley is becoming analytical and intuitive about things, you more or less leave the reasoning to him" (Monaghan 124).
Ian Fleming presents a character that is similar to Smiley, but also different in many ways: James Bond. Much debate about the relationship between these two characters takes place, where each is seen as the trademark character for each author. James Bond appeared in thirteen novels by Fleming (Johnson, Brief Biography). This remarkable character has captured the hearts of many. The reasons behind his popularity stem from the action and intrigue of this character. Bond's adventures are the kind readers can only dream will happen. His actions are always daring, he always gets the girl, and he is always successful in defeating the enemy (Johnson, Critical Essay). He is able to single-handedly defeat his enemies and the enemies of his country. At a time when the country had much anxiety over the possibility of another war, these novels provided a reassurance that the Soviet imperialism could be held in check. Bond embodied the belief that Britain could still be great, even during a time of uncertainty (Lewis 15-16).
The similarities between Smiley and Bond stop, however, after noting their appearance in several novels and their work in espionage. Noting the differences between them is what makes the character of Smiley one readers will remember and understand. The novels of le Carre provide a relief from the "unreality and snobbishness of the Bond books, and also give a much more accurate interpretation of the rival Secret Services during the Cold War period" (Atkins 170).
Le Carre has never disguised his dislike for Bond. Andy East writes that "le Carre's Secret Service protagonist, George Smiley, signified a contemptuous revolt against Bond" (170). But le Carre denies this. He does, however, state that Bond "was an absolute travesty of reality; it was absurdity and vulgarity. As an example of how different these two characters really were, the following description of Smiley is taken from Call for the Dead: "short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like a skin on a shrunken toad" (1). This description of Smiley, among other reasons, has earned him the reputation of the "anti-Bond" (Cobbs 95).
Le Carre's novel is one that stands out among spy novels of his time. He has drawn readers to his work form the mysterious life he led while in the British Secret Service. His use of inside information, historical events, and a known character establish Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as a novel that teaches about best-selling literature as a whole.
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