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"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 Carre'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

Two BAFTA-winning television adaptations were made of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People [1], starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley and Patrick Stewart as Karla; the page for them is here. A film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley, was released in September 2011; for more info, go here or visit the trope page.

Tropes featured include:

  • Achilles Heel: Karla has one in the form of his love for his daughter, and Smiley arguably has Ann, his wife, though he overcomes this by the end of the series.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Badass Bookworm: Smiley, who specializes in German poetry. In Smiley's People, he's spending his retirement working on a monograph.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Alleine, "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.
  • Creator Backlash: In the prefaces to the republished novels, John Le Carre argues that Smiley had outlived his potential as a character by the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in large part because of real-life changes in the political climate.
  • Cunning Linguist: Simultaneously played straight and subverted with Toby Esterhase.

  ...Tiny Toby spoke no known language perfectly, but he spoke them all.

  • Depraved Bisexual: Bill Haydon
  • Double Agent: Bill Haydon in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy".
  • 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.
  • Face Heel Turn: Deconstructed, thanks to the Grey and Gray Morality, in The Honourable Schoolboy.
  • 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.
  • Gender Bender 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.
  • Grail Quest: The quest for Karla itself. Lampshaded in Smiley's People, where Smiley refers to Karla as his "black Grail."
  • Grey and Grey Morality: Both the British and Russian intelligence agencies are perfectly happy to do terrible things.
  • 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.)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Namer for the term, believe it or not.
    • More like 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 Carre 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 Carre notes that The Mole is partly based on Kim Philby.
  • 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 Bernard: 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.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: One of Smiley's tactics.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Stealth Hi Bye: Smiley is good at this, much to Fawn's fury.
  • Supervillain Lair: Pointedly inverted and lampshaded 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.
  • 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.
  • The Watson: Peter Guilliam 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" Elizabeth Worthington Westerby sends her 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.
  • Xanatos Gambit: 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.


  1. The Honourable Schoolboy was skipped due to budget constraints
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