Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a spy novel by John le Carré, first published in 1974. It is the first volume of a three-book series informally known as The Karla Trilogy, followed by The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People. All three novels were published as a single-volume omnibus, The Quest for Karla.
In the novel, George Smiley, the book's old, estranged, overweight, taciturn and sharp-minded protagonist, is recalled from his uneasy retirement when there are signs that one of the top-ranking officers of the British Secret Intelligence Service (referred to throughout as "The Circus") is a Soviet mole.
The first chapter opens with Prideaux taking up a post as a languages master at a small private school for boys after being repatriated to England. He brings along his vintage Alvis roadster, and lives in a caravan on the school grounds.
Peter Guillam was demoted to head of "scalp-hunters," a sort of throwback to the rougher, hired-thugs version of intelligence officers the Circus used in its older days. Now, one of his men, Ricki Tarr, has surfaced after having gone absent during an operation eight months earlier. Guillam drives Smiley to a meeting with Tarr and Oliver Lacon, the Permanent under Secretary to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Civil Service official with oversight authority over the intelligence services. Tarr says that on his last assignment, he had an affair with a Russian woman, Irina, the wife of a Moscow Centre operative, who told Tarr that one of her former lovers claimed to have worked as an assistant to the Soviet cultural attaché in London, Polyakov, who in reality is the case officer for a high-ranking "mole" in the Circus, code-named "Gerald" and recruited by "Karla", a shadowy Russian intelligence director.
What makes the story convincing is that no sooner had Tarr cabled London for further instructions when Irina and her husband were snatched from their hotel and put on the next plane to Moscow.
Smiley gradually pieces together the story by analyzing files, interrogating witnesses and trawling through his own memory and those of other retired Circus personnel. His task is complicated because one of the suspects, Haydon, had had an affair with Smiley's wife Ann during the time period of Testify that had broken up their marriage, and he has to separate out his personal feelings.
Smiley first visits Connie Sachs, the Circus's former head of research, possessed of a phenomenal memory. She confirms that there are several indications that Polyakov is in fact a Soviet army colonel named Viktorov, recruited by Karla as a special agent. There were also several suspicious signs that Polyakov was running an English mole, but her requests for further investigation were firmly refused by the Circus hierarchy.
Based on a review of files stolen from the Circus by Guillam, Smiley discovers an interplay between Witchcraft and Polyakov's activities and realizes that Witchcraft and Gerald are part of the same conspiracy.
During a dinner with Peter, Smiley tells what he knows of Karla's history, including the fact that they've met face-to-face once. Karla had been caught after setting up an illegal network in the United States, and was being held in Delhi. Smiley interviewed him there, attempting to persuade him to defect, since he was almost certainly facing execution back home. During the interview, he loaned Karla his cigarette lighter, which Karla took away with him. Karla returned to Moscow, outwitted his superiors, and survived. Smiley predicts that one day, Karla will be defeated because of his fanaticism.
Smiley then backtracks through the history of Operation Testify. Based on interviews with Sam Collins, the duty officer on post at the time of the ambush, and Jerry Westerby, a sports writer and Circus irregular, Smiley establishes that Prideaux was ambushed by Russian troops, not Czech, who were lying in wait for him.
Finally, Smiley tracks down Jim Prideaux, who gives the details of his capture and interrogation. Based on physical descriptions, Jim identifies two of his interrogators as Karla and Polyakov. The focus of the interrogation was entirely on how far Control had gotten in identifying the mole, and the interrogators were armed with amazingly detailed knowledge of his pre-mission briefing with Control ("They knew the brand of the bloody sherry, man.") After he was repatriated, Jim was given a generous severance payment and told in the strongest terms by Toby Esterhase to forget any suspicions he might have.
Smiley is now ready to go over to the attack: he gets Toby Esterhase alone, convinced that he is not the mole, and explains to Toby the shape of Karla's "very clever knot": "Gerald," whoever he is, introduced Source Merlin to Alleline in order to give Alleline the means to finally supplant Control (another possibility is that Alleline himself is Gerald, but Smiley doubts it); after Merlin's bona fides with the Circus and Whitehall were established, Gerald introduced Polyakov to the other top men of the Circus as the Merlin's London representative - a perfect conduit for providing the Witchcraft intelligence. But because Polyakov is a Moscow Centre agent, the Circus needs to cover up his meetings with them by pretending that he is running an English mole, and giving him "chickenfeed" – worthless intelligence tricked up to look valuable. This way, any indicators that the Russians have a mole inside the Circus are just part of the illusion, and the Circus hierarchy itself acts ruthlessly to suppress them, as witness Connie Sachs, Jerry Westerby, and Jim Prideaux. The problem is, in reality, Witchcraft is the chickenfeed, and one of the Circus top men really is a mole, under whose guidance the Circus has unwittingly been "handing Polyakov the crown jewels."
Toby tells Smiley enough about the procedures for meeting Polyakov to lay the trap: Ricki Tarr sends a message from Paris, claiming to have urgent information for Alleline – which Smiley knows will force the real mole to call an emergency meeting with Polyakov. Smiley and Guillam lie in wait at the safe house, where the mole is revealed to be Bill Haydon, whose guilt is established in person and on tape.
Alleline, Bland and Esterhase, humiliated and defeated, bow to George's suggestion that they negotiate with Karla to exchange Haydon for as many of the Circus's betrayed secret agents behind the Iron Curtain as can be saved (now that Haydon has been exposed, they will otherwise be arrested and executed).
Smiley is invited by Haydon to hear a partial and self-serving explanation of his conduct before his departure for Russia, in which Haydon discusses his reasons for becoming a mole, and also reveals that Operation Testify was a trap from the beginning, lain because both Karla and Haydon saw that Control was getting too close to exposing Haydon. Testify was to make sure that Control would have to leave the Circus and Witchcraft was to make sure that Percy Alleline replaced Control as chief of the Circus. Haydon also confesses, somewhat shamefully, that he knew the precise time of the operation because Prideaux came to him before he left for Czechoslovakia, to warn him. (Haydon and Prideaux were best friends, and possibly lovers, when they were at university together.)
The deal with Karla is broken when Haydon is found dead on the grounds of the camp where he is being held, his neck broken. His killer is never explicitly named, but a series of verbal clues laid earlier in the novel make clear that his killer is Prideaux, taking revenge for being betrayed.
Jim returns to his boys' school, and does his best to resume a normal life.
Haydon's character is apparently based upon Kim Philby , a member of the Cambridge Five who is sometimes referred to as "The Spy of the Century." Like the fictional Haydon, Philby was an avid womanizer and overcame widespread suspicion about his ties to defector Guy Burgess and continued to work as a British spy for over ten more years before his own defection to Russia in 1963.
Connie Sachs, the Circus's head of research, appears to be modelled on Millicent Bagot.
Several real-life intelligence operatives have been suggested as the models for both Smiley and Karla. Smiley was rumored to be based on Sir Maurice Oldfield, a former head of British Intelligence, though the author denied this. The author likewise denied that Karla was modeled on General Markus Wolf, the legendary former head of the East German foreign intelligence bureau. Another influence suggested was General Rem Krassilnikov, though there is no substantiation of this (Krassilnikov's obituary in the New York Times stated that his CIA opponents viewed him as a real-life Karla).
Smiley reports that Karla is said to have been trained in espionage by "Berg," a possible reference to an alias used by Alexander Mikhailovich Orlov, a former KGB agent who defected to the west.
The novel was dramatized as a seven-part television series for the BBC in 1979. It was shown in 1980 in America on PBS as part of their Great Performances series with introductions by Robert MacNeil to help explain the workings of the British Secret Service. Later American showings edited the seven episodes into six, and it is this format that is currently available on DVD in the US.
The opening credits have a matryoshka doll that progressively reveals one doll more irate than the previous, with the final doll having no face whatsoever. This is reminiscent of Churchill's description of Russia as being "A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Likewise, Smiley ends the novel by musing that, in the end, only Karla saw the "last doll" inside Bill Haydon.
The series' first showing in 1979 coincided with the announcement that Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen's pictures, had been a member of the Cambridge Five.