Literature / The Quest for Karla
aka: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

"I've got a story to tell you, it's all about spies. And if it's true, which I think it is, you boys are gonna need a whole new organisation..."
Ricki Tarr, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

One of the finest spy trilogies of all time, John le Carré's The Quest for Karla trilogy is a thriller set during the Cold War. It deals with British Intelligence officer George Smiley and his long battle with Russian spymaster Karla. Dealing with betrayal, love and the often mundane nature of spying, it asks awkward and painful questions about keeping secrets from your friends, lovers and indeed yourself.

The series consists of three books published between 1974 and 1979. These are:
  1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  2. The Honourable Schoolboy
  3. Smiley's People

For the BAFTA-winning television adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's Peoplenote , starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley and Patrick Stewart as Karla, see here. For the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, see here.

Tropes featured include:

  • Accidental Pun: In The Honourable Schoolboy, Jerry Westerby first meets Drake Ko's bodyguard Tiu while posing as a journalist at a racetrack where one of Ko's horses is competing. In every subsequent encounter, he calls him "horse-writer". As he only speaks broken English, he doesn't realize that it sounds like a pun on "horse rider".
  • Achilles' Heel: Karla has one in the form of his love for his daughter, and Smiley has Ann, his wife, though he overcomes this by the end of the series. Both he and Karla uses each other's weaknesses again each other with Smiley being more successful.
  • The Alcoholic: Connie Sachs, most notably.
  • All There in the Manual: Some of the events of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy come across much, much differently if you've read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and The Looking Glass War. In particular, Control's fate starts looking like Laser-Guided Karma.
  • The Alleged Plane: Jerry Westerby has to take a nail-biting flight in a tattered, rusty, and practically collapsing plane in The Honourable Schoolboy.
  • Animal Motifs: Horses come up quite frequently in The Honourable Schoolboy. One of Jerry Westerby's neighbors in Italy is a horse-breeder, Jerry is said to be skilled at handling horses, Drake Ko owns a racehorse named after his younger brother, Tiu repeatedly calls Jerry "horse-writer" after he gets into a racetrack by pretending to write an article about the race, Smiley's management of the Circus is compared to "carrying [a] horse up the hill", at least one crumbling Circus building is figuratively called "an old horse put out to grass", and the Dwarf jokingly guesses that "Big Moo's wife's horse has the hiccups" when Luke announces that he has news in the opening scene. Two of the chapters are also titled "Mr. George Smiley's Horse" and "More About Horses". Possibly coincidentally, the opium trade figures heavily into the plot; "horse" is a common slang term for "heroin".
  • As You Know: The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People have ample doses of this, as there's usually a lot of complicated backstory without which the plot makes no sense.
  • Ascended Extra: Jerry Westerby in The Honourable Schoolboy. He has a brief role in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as one of the old Circus operatives who Smiley interviews for clues about the Mole's identity, but he reappears as the central protagonist of The Honourable Schoolboy when Smiley assigns him to investigate Karla's funds in Hong Kong. It turns out that the Mole overlooked him because he was only an occasional Circus agent, making him one of the few field agents whose identity wasn't leaked to the Soviets.
  • Badass Bookworm/Badass Bureaucrat: Smiley, who specializes in German poetry. In the office, he is typically a quiet, meek figure, whose demeanor belies the many, many successful operations that he ran. In Tinker Tailor he was the one called in to hunt down the mole; in Honorable Schoolboy he was responsible for largely rebuilding the Circus from the ground up. In Smiley's People, he's spending his retirement working on a monograph, but is again called out of retirement because his agents know that there is no one as good as he.
  • Badass Decay: An in universe example with Sam Collins. He starts off as a hard-bitten field man with (per Jerry Westerby) "a reputation as an ace operator" who Control trusts to act as duty officer on the night of Testify. He ends up as Saul Enderby's sycophantic dogsbody.
  • Battle Butler: Fawn, Smiley's factotum in the first two novels. Always on hand with a cup of tea, always quick to hold coats, open doors and deliver telegrams with brisk, quiet efficiency. Before the Fall, though, he worked with Peter Guillam as a scalphunter and is, by trade, a silent killer.
  • Berlin Wall: Crucial in the climactic scene of Smiley's People. Mirrors the first scene in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.
  • Berserk Button: Invoked and played with. Throughout the trilogy, characters try to goad Smiley out of being The Stoic by mentioning what they're sure will be his Berserk Button, Ann's infidelity. It never works.
    • One of the few times we see him provoked into anger (he stands up! and raises his voice!) is when Connie compares him to Karla one too many time in "Smiley's People"
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Smiley.
  • Big "NO!": A very uncharacteristic one from Smiley in Smiley's People, when Connie Sachs mentions that many people in the Circus thought that he and Karla were Not So Different.
  • Bilingual Bonus: There's a fair amount of untranslated French in The Honourable Schoolboy.
  • Bittersweet Ending:Smiley's People. Smiley defeats his nemesis Karla. But in order to do so, Smiley breaks his code of conduct and has to exploit Karla's love for his mentally ill daughter.
    • The Honourable Schoolboy. Hooray, Operation Dolphin has succeeded. But the Americans have made off with Nelson Ko instead of sharing him with the Circus. Drake Ko's schemes to reunite himself with his brother have come to naught. Fawn assassinates Jerry Westerby in retaliation for his Face–Heel Turn. And George Smiley has been forced out...again.
  • Blackmail: Extremely important in The Honourable Schoolboy where it leads to disaster and Smiley's People where it works as planned.
  • Broken Bird: Hilary in Smiley's People, who had some sort of mental breakdown while working for the Circus. It's not clear what prompted it, though.
    • Elizabeth Worthington in The Honourable Schoolboy.
      • Karla's daughter, Tatiana, in Smiley's People.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Connie Sachs in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Toby Esterhase throughout the series. He constantly bitches and moans about resources and his work load, is cold and rude to his colleagues, runs scams and has an extremely strange way of speaking. However, whenever he's shown on the job he's utterly professional and gets it done. There's a reason he's the only member of the senior staff Smiley keeps on in The Honourable Schoolboy.
  • Character Tics: Whenever he's thinking, Smiley polishes his glasses on his tie.
  • Chekhov's Gun/Chekhov's Skill: Jim Prideaux handily dispatches an owl by breaking its neck. He'll do the same to Bill Haydon at the end of the novel.
  • Code Name (Karla in particular, whose real name we never find out.)
    • In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the mole suspects are allocated code names by "Control" based on the nursery rhyme "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor; rich man, poor man, beggarman thief". when he sends Jim Prideaux to find out from a Czechoslovak general: "Tinker" for Percy Alleline, "Tailor" for Bill Haydon, "Soldier" for Roy Bland, "Sailor" and "Rich Man" are skipped as the former sounds too similar to "Tailor" and the latter seemed inappropriate, "Poor Man" for Toby Esterhase and "Beggarman" for George Smiley.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: By Smiley's People, Connie Sachs, who is dying, has started taking in all sorts of random, and frequently decrepit, animals.
  • Cunning Linguist: Downplayed with Toby Esterhase.
    ...Tiny Toby spoke no known language perfectly, but he spoke them all.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Bill Haydon. At the end of Tinker Tailor, he gives Smiley a four-figure cheque for a woman and what is assumed to be his kid, while asking him to pay off a male sailor.
  • The Dilbert Principle: Exploited by the Mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Bill Haydon arranges for Percy Alleline to get appointed Chief of the Circus by providing him with seemingly useful Soviet intelligence, knowing that he's one of the most incompetent spies in the agency—and thus, the one least likely to finger him as a Soviet agent.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Fawn drags a would-be wristwatch thief from his car, then climbs out to break both of the boy's arms in The Honorable Schoolboy, to Guillam's horror.
  • Double Agent: Bill Haydon in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
  • Double Meaning Title: The Honourable Schoolboy. Most obviously, the title refers to Jerry "The Schoolboy" Westerby and his stringent sense of duty in a time of great cynicism. Jerry is also the son of a minor English nobleman, and can justifiably call himself "The Honourable Gerald Westerby".
  • Drives Like Crazy:
    • Fearful of kidnappers having snatched his wife, Peter Guillam in Smiley's People blitzes through the streets of Paris from the embassy, turning what should be a forty-minute drive through rush hour traffic into eighteen. Police reports placed him jumping through three sets of lights and touching 140 km/h near the home stretch. It turns out to be Smiley paying a surprise visit with Madame Ostrakova in tow instead of kidnappers.
    • On a lighter note, the surveillance team in Switzerland pegs Grigorieva as an enthusiastic but terrifyingly unskilled driver. On one occasion she hauled her husband out of the driver's seat, climbed in, and promptly clipped the post of their driveway, sending the watchers into uncontrollable laughter.
  • End of an Age: A recurring theme. As is repeatedly mentioned in the narration, many of the old secrets of the espionage trade begin to quietly die out as the Cold War drags on, and the Old Masters like Smiley and Control are replaced by impulsive youngsters who never had to prove themselves in the high-stakes chaos of World War II. Control is said to have been the last English intelligence operative who successfully kept his name secret for his entire career, and Smiley's colleagues remember him as "surely the last of the true greats" after his retirement.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Deconstructed, thanks to the Grey and Gray Morality, in The Honourable Schoolboy.
  • Fake-Out Opening: No, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not a British boarding school novel, but the opening chapter is written to give the impression that it is.
  • Foe Yay: Connie Sachs deliberately invokes this with the Russian agents she tracks; in many cases she'd know them so intimately that she'd refer to them as her lovers, occasionally mentioning one's beautiful voice, for instance.
  • Foreshadowing: Jim Prideaux's bonding with the young schoolboy Bill Roach in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy hints at The Mole being Prideaux's old schoolmate Bill Haydon. Late in the novel, Prideaux spurns Roach because he reminds him of his duty to kill Haydon. Played up in the movie adaptation, where Roach is played by a rotund, dark-haired child actor who could easily be a young Colin Firth.
  • Gender-Blender Codename: Karla is male, but he is only known by the name of the first agent he recruited.
  • Glory Days: All of the older characters have outlasted the British Empire, and don't quite know what to do with themselves.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Both the British and Russian intelligence agencies are perfectly happy to do terrible things.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: Smiley notes that the interrogation centre where The Mole is being held isn't as well guarded as it used to be. The perimeter isn't being patrolled, and the guards are too busy watching TV to accompany the mole when he decides to go for a midnight stroll whereupon he gets his neck broken.
  • Happily Married: Guillam by the third book, in contrast to the disappointing conclusion of George's marriage to Ann.
  • Henpecked Husband: Grigoriev of Smiley's People, with the added fun that he is having an affair with his secretary. It makes for prime blackmail material: losing his post is bad enough, but living in Siberia facing the wrath of Grigorieva twenty-four hours a day would be a Fate Worse Than Death.
  • Heroic BSOD: After he finds his friend Luke murdered, Jerry Westerby spends the rest of The Honourable Schoolboy in this state.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: The Circus doesn't go very far to hide Jim Prideaux, since he takes up his new job as a French teacher using his own name.
  • Ho Yay: Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux; invoked by the narration in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. (Given Haydon's proclivities, background documents are rather coy about the two of them.)
  • Honey Trap: Karla employs a subversion to get the upper hand on Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (see It's Personal). He knows that Smiley is the one most likely to figure out that Haydon is the mole, so he orders Haydon to seduce Smiley's wife, and makes sure that everyone in the Circus knows that he did it. He knows that Smiley's anger will cloud his judgement, and that no one at the Circus will take him seriously if he accuses Haydon of treason.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Part of how Smiley comes to suspect that Bill Haydon is the mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. During Operation Testify, he found out about Prideaux's capture long before anyone at the Circus logically could have told him about it; the news broke on the radio after his club had closed for the night
  • Idiot Ball: In The Honourable Schoolboy, there's extensive in-universe discussion of whether or not Smiley is carrying one when it comes to Jerry Westerby's obsession with Elizabeth Worthington.
  • It's Personal: Karla deliberately takes advantage of this by ordering Haydon to sleep with Ann, thereby making Smiley unable to truly suspect him in a cold, detached way. In the end, Smiley's only way to retaliate is to threaten Karla's illegitimate daughter with exposure. In a profession rife with Dirty Business, these are the incidents that trouble Smiley the most.
  • In the Back: Where Prideaux gets shot.
  • Let Me Get This Straight: the plots of the books tend to be so convoluted that explanations tend to be necessary, particularly for Smiley's People, where Saul Enderby has to confirm via George Smiley just how all the events that had happened so far tie together and lead to Karla.
  • Mandatory Unretirement: Smiley. Twice.
  • Manly Tears: Smiley in The Honourable Schoolboy, after two informants are killed during a rescue attempt.
  • The Masochism Tango: Smiley's relationship with his wife, which persists despite her chronic inability to remain faithful to him. He finally puts an end to it in Smiley's People, although without explicitly asking for a divorce.
  • Married to the Job: The series implies that the duplicity necessary to maintain a career in Intelligence torpedoes any possibility of maintaining a healthy marriage.
  • May-December Romance: Smiley and Lady Ann; Jerry Westerby and Liz Worthington; Guillam and Marie-Claire.
  • The Matchmaker: Peter Guillam has appointed himself the designated go-between in the Smileys' regular breakups. Smiley finally chews him out for it in Smiley's People.
  • Memento MacGuffin: The lighter that Lady Ann gave Smiley, which Karla steals during a flashback in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Karla drops it in front of Smiley when he finally defects in Smiley's People, but Smiley decides not to pick it up.
  • Mole in Charge: Control realizes that one of the very top agents in the Circus must be The Mole.
  • The Mole: The main plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is finding the mole. The novel is also the Trope Codifier; it popularised a term that has been around since at least the 17th century, though it was a very obscure one. Le Carré though claimed it was a KGB term.
  • Murder by Mistake: Luke for Jerry Westerby in The Honourable Schoolboy.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: In the introduction to the reprint edition of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Le Carré notes that The Mole is partly based on Kim Philby (the Philby affair brought an end to Le Carré's own MI6 career).
  • No Name Given: Control and Karla. Control's success in keeping his real name secret gets lampshaded in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
    • Outside the Circus, Control has two different names (and two different "wives"), neither of which appears to be the real one.
  • Not Now, Kiddo: In The Honourable Schoolboy, Peter Guillam keeps having this problem when he tries to explain to George Smiley that Sam Collins and Martello are probably conspiring against him. At the end of the novel, Guillam begins to wonder if Smiley knew all along, and allowed himself to be done in.
  • Not So Different: By the end, Smiley and Karla. Karla has shown himself to have Smiley's compassion, and Smiley has to use Karla's ruthlessness to exploit it. The realization forms the emotional climax of the trilogy.
  • Number Two: The Circus goes through a succession of them (known as "Cupbearers" in Circus parlance). Smiley starts out as Control's second-in-command; Bill Haydon becomes Percy Alleline's second after the fallout from Operation Testify forces Smiley and Control to resign; Peter Guillam ultimately becomes Smiley's second after Haydon is outed as a Soviet mole.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: One of Smiley's tactics.
  • The Plan: Karla's plot to discredit Control and Smiley and the Witchcraft scheme and how Smiley exposes the Mole. There are examples in each book in the trilogy.
  • Poirot Speak: Toby Esterhase.
  • Posthumous Character: Control.
  • Properly Paranoid: Technically, everyone, but Control is most properly paranoid. In his case, it reaches the point of Cassandra Truth.
    Control: There were three men, and Alleline...
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The ending of every novel.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Fawn, who starts out as a quietly lethal take on Bunter, then turns out to be childishly dependent on George Smiley, and finally tips over into viciousness so glaring that Peter Guillam is horrified.
  • Really Gets Around / Your Cheating Heart: Smiley's wife, Lady Ann.
    • Both Ricki Tarr and Jerry Westerby.
    • Control apparently did this as a matter of policy.
  • Running Gag: Smiley's inability to talk his way out of a dinner invitation. The food is inevitably terrible and he doesn't get a decent feed in any of the books until his send off in The Secret Pilgrim.
  • Self-Harm: Peter Guillam catches Fawn deliberately harming himself when he's temporarily abandoned by Smiley.
  • The Short Guy with Glasses: Smiley.
  • Spy Speak: One of the most famous examples, with the trilogy's influence leading to some Defictionalization.
  • Spy Swap: The Circus agrees with Karla to swap Haydon for their blown agents in the Soviet bloc that aren't already dead, but Haydon is killed before the exchange can take place. Oliver Lacon asks if Karla will do the deal anyway and Smiley remarks that he won't.
  • The Starscream: Karla's underlings and rivals at Moscow Centre. Who are looking for an excuse to deprive him of his power and have him liquidated. It is with this in mind that Karla chooses to defect.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: Smiley is good at this, much to Fawn's fury.
  • Supervillain Lair: Defied in Smiley's People. When Grigoriev meets Karla, he is astonished to find him in a virtually bare room, instead of the luxury he was expecting.
  • Surprisingly Good English: Jerry Westerby is astonished when the Thai colonel he's interviewing turns out to speak perfect English with a strong American accent.
  • Super Intelligence: Connie Sachs, former head of Research, is virtually a living repository of knowledge on Soviet intelligence, and was affectionately nicknamed "Mother Russia" for it. Her specialty was tracking the movement of Soviet moles until she came dangerously close to the truth about Polyakov, and "Gerald" had her pensioned off.
  • That One Case: "Smiley's People", an espionage example.
  • Theme Naming: In addition to the code names taken from the "tinker, tailor" rhyme in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, there's also Drake and Nelson Ko from The Honourable Schoolboy.
  • To Know Him, I Must Become Him: This is Smiley's arc during Smiley's People, despite the Big "NO!" (see above).
  • True Companions: Subverted. Smiley's teams of spies often share a common ethic, but the very nature of their work, rife with betrayal and distrust, prevent them from forming any close bonds with each other. Consequently, when it is finally played straight in Smiley's People with Smiley, Guillam, and Esterhase's team in order to blackmail Gregoriev, and then to receive Karla as he defects, the friendship and trust forms an odd sort of heartwarming feeling.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Past: The Honourable Schoolboy was published in 1977, two years after the Khmer Rouge seized power in Camdodia, but it takes place in 1974 at the height of the Cambodian Civil War. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy technically counts as well (it was published in 1974, but takes place in 1973), but recent historical events have little bearing on the plot.
  • Twofer Token Minority: Connie, who by the time of Smiley's People is both disabled and in a relationship with a woman.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: George Smiley and Lady Ann, with unromantic results.
  • Verbal Tic: Jerry Westerby's "Super" (with optional "Gosh") and Martello's "ah" in The Honourable Schoolboy.
  • The Vietnam War: Forms part of the backdrop for The Honourable Schoolboy - Jerry Westerby is travelling around Indochina as Saigon falls, and he witnesses Thai troops repelling Communist attackers in the process.
  • You Have Failed Me: This seems to be Karla's M.O. whenever an operation of his gets compromised.
  • The Watson: Peter Guillam in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
  • What Does He See in Her?: George Smiley and Lady Ann.
    • Jerry Westerby and Elizabeth Worthington. Jerry is upfront with himself about the attraction: he has fallen for her because she's a "loser."
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In "The Honourable Schoolboy" Westerby sends Elizabeth Worthington away before his final meeting on the beach. He promises to meet her afterwards, but the prologue mentions the fates of all the characters but her.
    • Although she is almost certainly the "English adventuress" prosecuted in Hong Kong for transporting heroin, probably as retaliation for helping Jerry Westerby warn Drake Ko.
    • There's an in-universe example with Fawn, who simply disappears without a trace after killing Jerry Westerby.
      • Ricki Tarr disappears between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy.

Alternative Title(s): The Quest For Karla, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy