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Literature / The Quest for Karla

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“It's the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?"

"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 (otherwise known as Smiley Versus Karla) are three spy novels set during the Cold War. They're part of a longer, loosely-knit series of books featuring British Intelligence officer George Smiley, with the trilogy covering 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.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Drake Ko. Sure, the guy was involved in a long line of violent crimes and dodgy businesses over the years, and his mission was quite hostile to Smiley's interests. But at the end of the day, all he really wanted to do was bring his little brother home safely. It's hard not to shed a tear when the CIA grab Nelson away from him, just moments after finally getting to see him again.
  • 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 Car: 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: 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.
  • Beneath the Mask: George Smiley appears to be a slightly myopic, helpless, and generally tragic old man who is genuinely sick of all the betrayals and lies that constitute his profession and that has wrecked his personal life. Only occasionally do we see why he's still in the Circus: he is brilliant and very, very good at what he does, i.e., the betrayals and lies that constitute his profession. His opponent, Karla, appears to be an iron-willed fanatic for whom taking advantage of the opposition's humanity is part of the job. It is not until Smiley's People that we see the crack in his mask: his love for his illegitimate daughter, Tatiana, who is driven insane by her inability to recognize the spymaster as her father. The ending of Smiley's People implies that beneath their masks, Smiley and Karla are Not So Different — a revelation that drives Smiley to retire for good.
  • 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 times in "Smiley's People"
  • 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 weren't that 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 (possibly just because Jerry attacked him earlier). And George Smiley has been forced out...again.
  • Bribe Backfire: A rather bleakly humorous version is mentioned in Smiley's People. A CIA station in Switzerland tried to bribe a local professor so that they could run wires through his property to bug the Soviet embassy. The professor took the money and promptly reported everything to the local police, who were embarrassed no end. Turns out the CIA had already talked to them, and they were looking forward to their promised portion of the intelligence gathered.
  • 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.
  • Cool Teacher: Prideaux becomes a prep school teacher in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and befriends a student, Bill Roach, to whom he acts like a friendly, older brother figure. When he realizes he's training the boy to become a spy, like he was, he shoos him away.
  • 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.
  • Dead Drop: In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a yellow thumbtack on a ferry indicates that one is ready.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Bill Haydon. At the end of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 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 book also heavily implies that Haydon and Prideaux were lovers, and that Prideaux murdering him is in response to a lover's betrayal as much as a professional one.
  • 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.
    Control: There were three men and Alleline.
  • Disappointed by the Motive: Questioning Haydon about his motives for becoming a traitor, Smiley is conscious that he is being told only half the truth, and that half consists largely of "half-baked political assertions". Later on the train to see Ann, Smiley turns over a half-dozen different motives in his head, ranging from political (genuine disappointment at the United Kingdom's diminished role in world affairs, and its eclipsing by the United States as the dominant superpower in the Cold War) to personal (embracing communism as a poor substitute for a "loveless childhood" with an abusive father). Smiley ultimately decides that only Karla saw "the last little doll" inside the traitor, and besides, that original motive likely faded into insignificance along with the rest of his youthful idealism:
    [He] was on the path, and Karla would have known how to keep him there. Treason, like everything else, is very much a matter of habit.
  • 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.
  • Enemy Civil War: The antagonism between the Soviet Union and Communist China is a major plot point in The Honourable Schoolboy. Karla, being Karla, has a valuable agent planted in China.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Drake Ko in The Honourable Schoolboy. Though it's debatable whether he's truly "evil", he's in league with Russian intelligence, and he has at least been party to a few violent crimes over the years. But his unconditional love for his younger brother Nelson is a major redeeming quality, and it turns out that most of his supposed hostile actions against the West were done to protect his brother.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Deconstructed, thanks to the Grey-and-Gray Morality, in The Honourable Schoolboy. Jerry Westerby ultimately goes rogue and tries to help Drake Ko smuggle his brother Nelson—a Soviet mole—out of China. However, Westerby only does it because he wants to save Ko's lover from getting caught in the crossfire, and Ko's only real crime is looking out for his beloved brother.
  • 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.
  • Famous-Named Foreigner: The Hungarian Toby Esterhase shares his last name with the Esterházys, a very prominent Hungarian noble family. It's implied the character might be related to them, or is at least pretending to be.
  • Feed the Mole: The sort of intelligence deemed suitable for leaking to moles is dubbed "Chickenfeed". The cabal of high-level intelligence officials believe that they are only giving chickenfeed to their pet Soviet mole, while one of their number is in fact feeding the mole with real, vital intelligence. Similarly, they view the intelligence supplied back to them as being gold; Smiley, however, is suspicious from the get-go - "Topicality is always suspect," he remarks of the first report - and confirms in the end that it was all Karla's chickenfeed, with just a few scraps of the good stuff at the start in order to bait the hook.
  • 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.
  • For Want Of A Nail: In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Operation Testify is botched, but in such a way that The Mole is forced to construct a sloppy alibi. Because Jim Prideaux was shot, rather than just captured, the confusion over whether he was dead or alive delayed Moscow Centre in getting a message to Haydon. Had it arrived a couple hours earlier, he would have learned of Jim's capture from the ticker machine at his club. When he did learn of the capture, his club had already closed for the night, and this casts suspicion on him, since he arrived already having known about what had happened.
  • 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.
  • Hastily Hidden MacGuffin: Smileys People has Estonian ex-patriate General Vladimir contact retired British Intelligence agent George Smiley about a "legend" operation being conducted by Soviet mastermind Karla. "I have two proofs, and can bring them with me." The General is murdered before he meets with Smiley. However, Smiley deduces from the General's footprints in the snow that the victim paused in his flight to jettison something toward a municipal park. There, Smiley finds a pack of cigarettes in a tree, which contains two compromising photo negatives.
  • 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.
  • The Hero Dies: At the end of The Honourable Schoolboy, Jerry Westerby goes into a dangerous situation to try to rescue his love interest, who is tangled up with the bad guys, and is killed. It underscores his status as the "honourable schoolboy" of the title, too straightforwardly honest to survive in the murky world of espionage.
  • 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.
    • This is how The Mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is concealed. Witchcraft facilitates this. Because it is explicitly an intelligence-trading con, where valuable Soviet intelligence is traded for useless Western information, no one bothers looking closer when the results end up being of phenomenal benefit. This allows the mole to switch the information, providing genuine Western intelligence to Karla through "Merlin" in exchange for useless Soviet intelligence, and con the rest of the Circus into stymieing any attempt to unmask the scheme.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Karla spent a lifetime building an efficient and fanatical espionage organisation that is devoted to communism. Which he cannot use when he needs to use illicit funds for an illegal and personal act. He defects when found out by Smiley, out of fear it will turn on him and destroy his daughter.
  • 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.
    • In Smiley's People, Otto Leipzig sets a honey trap for Oleg Kirov, who, to use Connie Sachs' phrase, "walked in with his eyes wide shut."
  • Hyper-Competent Sidekick: Haydon to Alleline in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
  • 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.
  • Incompetence, Inc.: The Circus in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an institution in decline due to the actions of The Mole in subverting it, but the narrative makes it clear that he was only able to get so far because of the complacency, laziness, and greed endemic in its membership. It's telling that Karla's ultimate aim isn't to gain control of the Circus for its own sake, but to use it as a conduit to siphon prized American intelligence.
  • I'd Tell You, but Then I'd Have to Kill You: In The Honourable Schoolboy, Ricardo explains his monologuing problem to Jerry: "You confuse me, Voltaire. If I tell you too much, I have to shoot you. I'm a very talkative person, you follow me? I get lonely up here, it is my disposition always to be lonely. I like a guy, I talk to him, then I regret myself. I remember my business commitments, follow me?"
  • In-Series Nickname: Jerry Westerby is "The Schoolboy". His mentor Bill Craw is "The Old Craw".
  • 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.
  • Knew It All Along: When The Mole is finally identified in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley ruefully reflects that not only did he know all along, but everyone else in the Circus did, too - instinctively, if not empirically, since Bill Haydon was the only one of them for whom being a traitor would be in character, but all of them chose to just put it out of their minds, "like an illness they hoped would go away if it was never owned to, never diagnosed."
  • Knight in Sour Armor: George Smiley is an experienced but cynical spy. Despite the moral complications and issues of his work, Gordon always seeks to do the best job he can in his spying because he still believes it is the right thing to do. George is idealistic but also fully aware of the moral greyness of his environment.
  • 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 has been brought out of retirement, albeit in an informal or advisory capacity, to clean up various messes made by his former colleagues in the security services. 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.
  • Meaningful Name: Drake and Nelson Ko were both named after famed British sailors—which is fitting, since they're descended from the "boat people" of Shantou, who historically ran Chinese trade with the West. Drake Ko ultimately enlists the aid of a fleet of Chinese junk ships to smuggle his brother out of China.
  • 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.
    • Based on real-life; the existence of the Secret Intelligence Service was not publically acknowledged by HM Government at the time, nor were its chiefs named.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Old Master: Control, for the members of the Circus. The Old Craw, for the Foreign Correspondents. Smiley himself gradually becomes this after stepping into Control's shoes as Chief of the Circus.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Several members of the Foreign Correspondents' Club in The Honourable Schoolboy — the Dwarf, Deathwish the Hun, and the Canadian Cowboy — are only ever referred to by their nicknames.
  • Out of Focus: Smiley fades into the background for much of The Honourable Schoolboy as Jerry Westerby steps into the spotlight.
  • Pet Rat: The Scalphunters are the branch of the Circus that undertakes missions involving kidnapping, Blackmail, and murder. They are kept at "arm's length" to give the Circus some degree of plausible deniability. The department is looked down upon by other members of the Circus. When Peter Guillam is placed in charge of the unit, it's considered an insult to him.
  • 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: The Hungarian Toby Esterhase, who manages to do this in multiple languages.
    Tiny Toby spoke no known language perfectly, but he spoke them all. In Switzerland Guillam had heard his French and it had a German accent; his German had a Slav accent and his English was full of stray flaws and stops and false vowel sounds.
  • Posthumous Character: Control.
  • Prisoner Exchange: 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.
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: In Smiley's People, Sam Collins has become this to Circus boss Saul Enderby.
  • 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...
  • Puppet King: In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Control is rendered politically impotent by Percy Alleline's powerful connections in Whitehall. Percy himself becomes this as Circus Chief. Bill Haydon was really in control through him, using Operation Witchcraft to funnel Western intelligence to Karla.
  • Put on a Bus: In The Honourable Schoolboy, Bland, along with the Circus' resident Soviet defectors Kaspar and DeKursky, are sent on a mission that ends badly. This leads to all three getting fired.
  • 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: Smiley's wife, Lady Ann.
    • Both Ricki Tarr and Jerry Westerby.
    • Control apparently did this as a matter of policy.
  • Red Herring: Because of the setting of The Honourable Schoolboy, several characters naturally assume that Karla wants to infiltrate the British colony of Hong Kong with Chinese aid — or even to outright wrest it from British control. In truth, his plan is a bit less ambitious. He wants Drake Ko's help in smuggling Ko's brother Nelson — a loyal Soviet mole — out of Communist China.
  • Refuge in Audacity: In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, one of Smiley's accomplices is sneaking about in a part of Headquarters that he shouldn't really be in. He comes across a door which slams closed on a spring, and remembers Smiley saying "If you have to make a noise, make a loud one." So our man lets the door slam really hard, as if he had every right to be there. No one investigates.
    • One passage in "Tinker Tailor" reads as this retroactively when one of the four main suspects Haydon rants in frustration and in front of his subordinates about having to work with their American 'cousins' even remarking that it might be time for the UK to forsake the U.S as its ally entirely and start joining forces with the "bloody" Russians already. Turns out he's the mole
  • Refuge in the West: British Intelligence learn that Soviet agents have approached a dumpy fireplug of a woman about vouching for the daughter she left behind in the Soviet Union. George Smiley recognizes this as a "legend" operation, meant to install deep-cover agents under the guise of family of established immigrants. It turns out the daughter, Alexandra, is actually the daughter of Soviet spymaster Karla. The girl has mental problems that are poorly treated in Communist Russia, so Karla is trying to quietly get his daughter into Western facilities. The British use back-channels to let Karla know that his plan has been discovered, but that the Brits will welcome her nonetheless as a medical refugee.
  • Rewatch Bonus: In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Jim Prideaux's bonding with the young outcast schoolboy Bill Roach is written to seem more poignant when you know that the mole at the Circus is Prideaux's old schoolmate Bill Haydon.
  • Riddle for the Ages: When and how Haydon was recruited as a Soviet mole is never revealed. Smiley is shocked when Haydon tells him that he and Karla had a lifelong relationship, but Haydon refuses to elaborate further. Ultimately, revealing the identity of The Mole answers fewer questions than it creates, and Smiley is left with the unsettling realization that he never truly knew Haydon at all.What also doesn't help is that Haydon's Motive Rant appears to be so contradictory that the mole comes across as either a Consummate Liar or a inconsistent Commie Nazis at best, getting Smiley seriously annoyed after a while.
  • Room Full of Crazy: In reaction to the various disasters befalling the Circus, Control locks himself in his room with old files stacked everywhere, including the floor. Everyone thinks Control is losing his grip, but it turns out he's tracking down The Mole who's behind it all.
  • 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.
  • Serial Romeo: Peter Guillam is in a relationship with a different woman in each book, but is genuinely and passionately devoted to each while the relationship lasts.
  • The Short Guy with Glasses: Smiley. Short, chubby, bespectacled, soft-spoken, and arguably the greatest case-officer to ever work for British intelligence.
  • Shout-Out: Smiley's go-to alias of "Mr Standfast" - on the one hand, it's mentioned as being in reference to The Pilgrim's Progress, and on the other, it's the title of one of John Buchan's Hannay novels (where it's also a reference to The Pilgrim's Progress).
  • Shrouded in Myth: Karla. It's said of him in Smiley's People that he "is too important to exist. He controls the whole of Russia, but he does not exist... He does not exist, but everyone is afraid of him."
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Nelson Ko in The Honourable Schoolboy. He only appears — very briefly — in one of the very last scenes of the novel, but he's mentioned constantly before that, and nearly all of the novel's plot indirectly revolves around him. It turns out that Drake Ko only gets involved with Karla in order to smuggle him out of Communist China.
  • Spy School: The Circus has a combination interrogation centre/training ground at Sarratt.
  • Spy Speak: One of the most famous examples, with the trilogy's influence leading to some defictionalization.
  • 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.
  • Straight Edge Evil: Karla is said to have quite ascetic tastes, the only pleasure he indulges being his fondness for chain-smoking Camel cigarettes.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Take a Third Option: In "Smiley's People", Smiley has already used both of his usual two detailed false-identity passports in the names of Barraclough and Standfast recently. What does he do for the journey home to cover his tracks? Use his own passport and travel under the name of George Smiley.
  • Take It to the Bridge: The climactic scene of Smiley's People is set on a bridge across divided Berlin, unnamed in the novel by implied to be the famous "Bridge of Spies", the Glienicke Bridge. The scene marks an important turning-point for Smiley, the culmination of his final victory against Karla, by blackmailing him into defecting to the West.
  • 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; both were named after famous British admirals (Sir Francis Drake and Lord Horatio Nelson, respectively) after being christened by Jesuit missionaries in China.
  • To Know Him, I Must Become Him: This is Smiley's arc during Smiley's People, despite the Big "NO!" (see above).
  • Trophy Wife: Ann Smiley is often assumed to be one, because she's considerably younger than her husband and a real beauty and nobody can imagine that she married George because she was attracted to him.
  • 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.
  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The Honourable Schoolboy was published in 1977, two years after the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia, 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.
  • 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 She See in Him?:
    • 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?:
    • Fawn, who simply disappears without a trace after killing Jerry Westerby - it's an in-universe example, too.
    • Ricki Tarr disappears between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy.
  • Wife Husbandry: Karla with his mistress. He and his unit rescued a young girl from the ruins of her town in the last days of WWII, and after the war was over, he took her back to Russia as his ward. And then fell in love with that same girl and had a child by her.
  • Worthy Opponent: Discussed and invoked. The Minister worries that the exposure of a spy will lead to a scandal the Soviets may exploit, but Lacon (and Smiley, in the TV adaptation) explain that the Soviets won't disgrace their enemy because it'd reflect badly on their own offensive efforts against them.
    If you make your enemy look stupid, you lose the justification for taking him on.

Alternative Title(s): Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smileys People, Smiley Versus Karla