Showing posts with label George Smiley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label George Smiley. Show all posts

06 September 2017

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Empath


by Robert Lopresti

I scribbled down notes for this piece years ago when I saw an ad in Mystery Scene Magazine  for The Complete George Smiley Radio Dramas.  The BBC had created radio dramas based on the eight John le Carré novels featuring super spy George Smiley.  He is the protagonist of only four or five of the eight (depending on whether you think The Honourable Schoolboy is about him or about, uh, the honourable schoolboy).  

I have not heard the recordings but my first reaction was: Not possible.  Not possible turn my favorite of the books, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, into a radio drama and make it work.

I know people who read that book cover to cover and couldn't follow the plot.  I know people who have watched the whole six hour TV mini-series with Alec Guinness and were baffled by it.

For an earlier blog I wrote up the endings of twenty great mysteries (not identifying which books they came from, fiend that I am).  I spend twice as much space explaining TTSS as any of the others and still received a complaint that I had it wrong.



The novel's story is so twisty, so reverse-logic, that the idea of trying making it clear in a radio performance strikes me as insane.  If anyone has listened to the recording, please let me know what you think.

Here is one of the reasons the plot is hard to grasp.  Characters A and B are in effect asking: "Given that the situation is X why are Characters C and D doing what they do?"  The answer is: Characters C and D think the situation is Y.

(And by the way, the pretty-good movie version starring Gary Oldman, blew this part of the plot entirely, apparently just to put in one shocking scene.) 

My point is that to follow this part of the plot  requires  a leap of empathy, which no one in the book but Smiley is able to make, and a lot of readers have trouble with it, too.

I don’t mean sympathy, the ability to feel what someone else is feeling.   I mean the scientific sense of empathy: the ability to see things from the other person's point of view.

Decades ago a scientist named Daniel Povinelli taught chimpanzees to do a task for a reward.  Then the chimps saw a human doing a second related task.  Finally the chimps had to copy what the humans did.  In other words, the beasties' thinking process had to go something like this: "The human did a certain thing at the table and we both got fig bars.  Now the tables are turned (literally) and I have to do that same thing to earn us bars."

Which turned out to be no problem for most of the chimps to figure out.  But when the same experiment was tried with monkeys, well, it was like trying to teach them differential calculus on a roller coaster.  In spite of the old adage "monkey see, monkey do," those primates could not make the empathic leap.

It is easy to assume empathy is a good thing, but that's an oversimplification.  For example, it is an essential tool for con artists.  They have to see what the mark is seeing and know what the mark wants.  Science fiction writer Harry Turtledove wrote a story called "Bluff" in which an alien world's civilization is overturned when one character learns poker and discovers the concept of lying.

Other fields rely on empathy as well. I just read a terrific book by Nicholas Rankin called A Genius For Deception, about British trickery during the two World Wars.  One example is camouflage which, of course, depends in knowing how the object you are trying to disguise will look to an enemy soldier, sailor, or pilot.

But it is just as true in intelligence battles.  One of the frustrations of the British spies during WWII was that the Japanese intelligence units were so incompetent they would miss the false information that had been cunningly prepared for them.  In other words, you can't get someone into your trap if they don't notice the bait.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to the cunning of George Smiley.  If you haven't encountered Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I recommend it.  There are plenty of versions to choose from.

Addendum: After I wrote this I received an advance reader copy of John le Carré's new novel, officially published yesterday.  A Legacy of Spies is being plugged as a new Smiley novel, but it appears that once again the cunning old fox manages to stay on the side lines. The main character is Peter Guillam, Smiley's protege, who is called out of retirement to explain some of the master's cases to a post-Cold War generation of spies. I'm reading it now, and so far, it's good.


16 April 2013

Smiley's Series


by Terence Faherty

As part of its Pioneers of Television, PBS did a segment on the miniseries, a dramatic form that was extremely popular in the late seventies and all through the eighties. It's a shame that it isn't more popular today. Some of the failed Lost clones, like FlashForward and The Event, might have succeeded as miniseries. Viewers might have been more willing to invest their time if they'd known that the big questions posed by these shows' high-concept premises were going to be resolved in a reasonable amount of time and without endless (and increasingly crazy) plot complications.

During its heyday, the miniseries usually focused on sweeping, multigenerational sagas, but mystery novels were occasionally included. I remember a late seventies adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Dane Curse starring James Colburn. And there were the two BBC productions I revisited this past winter, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, which were both based on novels by John le Carré. The inspiration for my video trip down memory lane was the much more recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, which starred Gary Oldman. I enjoyed the movie, but it left me nostalgic for the 1979 miniseries, in which Alec Guinness played George Smiley, "retired" spy.

If that reference to Smiley's profession (or your own knowledge of le Carré's works) has you thinking that these books are espionage stories and not mysteries, you're half right. They're espionage stories and mysteries. In fact, Tinker, Tailor is a whodunit, as were le Carré's two earlier Smiley books, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. I still remember the suspense that slowly built during the original broadcast of Tinker, Tailor (which didn't occur in the U.S. until 1980) over the true identity of Gerald, the Russian mole inside British Intelligence. Reviewing the miniseries courtesy of Netflix, I felt that old suspense again. (Netflix did its best to encourage this by only entrusting me with one of the series' three discs at a time.)

Smiley's People is somewhat less satisfying as a story but just as well adapted. (Both series were scripted by le Carré himself.) There is a murder to be solved, but Smiley is more interested in why it happened than in who did it. Though made three years after Tinker, Tailor, Smiley's People reunites many members of the original cast. In fact, the casts of both miniseries are uniformly excellent. They include future stars Alan Rickman, doing a bit as a desk clerk, and Patrick Stewart, in the nonspeaking (!) role of Russian master spy Karla. Two of the strengths of Smiley's People are some great location shooting and an increased amount of screen time for Alec Guinness, who functions like a loner P.I., warned off the case by the authorities and hunted by the bad guys.

It would be hard to overpraise Alec Guinness's two performances as George Smiley. Guinness was an actor who could play broadly if the role called for it, but his real forte was underplaying. His talent for quiet was put to good use here, as George Smiley is one of the great listeners of popular literature. Both miniseries feature powerful scenes in which some other, more flamboyant character wanders far from the point of the conversation while Smiley sits quietly, waiting to draw him or her back. Depending on the situation, he might cajole or flatter or wheedle or simply will the wanderer to focus. I've written that sort of interaction many times, as has any writer of detective fiction, and it's a pleasure to see it done this well. And Guinness/Smiley's reactions to the constant references to his wife's infidelities--tiny winces or a slight narrowing of his eyes or just blank resignation--are equally wonderful.

I'll mention one last point of interest, at least for the writer of historical fiction. There are only two types of films and television shows: those done as period pieces and those that become period pieces over time. Smiley's miniseries are in the second group. I'd forgotten that the three-year gap between the two series marked a sea change in men's fashions. In Tinker, Tailor, wide, loud ties and wider lapels predominate. By Smiley's People, styles (or should I say widths?) had returned to a more classic look.

The late seventies might have been a bad time for clothes, but it was a really good time for long-form dramatic television. If you haven't seen these two examples recently, check them out.