Showing posts with label Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Show all posts

27 September 2017

Legacies




David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Davidson, himself a thriller writer and a former career CIA officer, remarks of John le Carré's new novel Legacy of Spies that it's up to his usual high literary standards, while going on to say, "...the work of MI6 is portrayed as exceedingly cynical and inhuman." I don't know about 'inhuman,' but 'cold-blooded' fits the bill, many of the characters all too slithery and reptilian, even for public school Brits with upper lips shot full of Novocaine. The book's dark heart is the chill of moral frostbite.


le Carre then
A Legacy of Spies is something of a swan song, or a curtain call. George Smiley takes his last bow. And a good many ghosts gather at his elbow. Alec Leamas, for one, the original Spy Who Came In From The Cold, along with Bill Haydon (Kim Philby's avatar), and Peter Guillam, one-time head Scalphunter and later Paris station chief, and even a cameo from Jim Prideaux. It's fair to say that if you're unfamiliar with Spy, and Tinker, Tailor, and in fact the earlier Call for the Dead - which first introduced the East German Steel Mission and Hans-Dieter Mundt - then this story's going to fall on deaf ears. Then again, it's unlikely you're going to push old ladies and small children into oncoming traffic to get hold of Legacy if you haven't already inhaled the ozone at the top floor of the Circus, and you need the icy rush it promises. Fear not. The old spook hasn't lost his tradecraft, and he can still wind the clock, before he starts shaking the tree.  

It's ill-advised, as a rule, to conflate a writer with his characters, but you suspect that George Smiley, if not le Carré's exact double, or even his reflection, does on occasion speak for him. There's the moment in Smiley's People when George, chasing an old asset in Hamburg, casts his mental eye East, along the shores of the Baltic, and imagines a prison empire and its subject peoples, a horizon empty of hope. This is the closest we ever get, if I'm remembering it right, to any kind of rationale on George's part, in any of the books. Is this le Carré's voice? Hard to pin down. Yes, it sounds right for George, the war generation, first Hitler, then Stalin. "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic." Then again, we know better than to trust in absolutes, or orthodox certainties. Smiley doesn't. He's lived through a damaged century.

What about loyalties, though? Bill Haydon betrays the Service, and his country, and - perhaps most unforgivably - his friends. He sleeps with George's wife Ann, first because he can ("Love to Ann - everybody's love to Ann"), but under instructions from Karla. Curiously, too, everybody involved in Operation Windfall, and the Testify cock-up, give their loyalty personally to Control, or to Smiley, cutting out the Witchcraft circle, the tainted and suspect. And for the Mustache Petes, like Guillam, their institutional loyalty isn't to the present-day Service, the glassy cubicle farm on the Thames, but to the Circus of old, not just the ill-lit corridors but its habits of mind, its Druid impenetrability.

Le Carré uses Legacy of Spies to post his epitaph on the Cold War. Or more exactly, he has Smiley do it, and we can't be entirely sure who's speaking. But when Smiley tells Peter Guillam that it was all an exercise in futility, that the clandestine wars had no real result, no satisfying narrative coda, it rings false to me. It doesn't sound like Smiley. It sounds like le Carré. And this is where I have to part company with him. I know a few other people who were once in the secret world (the above-mentioned Michael Davidson, for one) who don't buy into this, either. I think that what we did in those years, not to put too fine a point on it, kept the Cold War from getting hot. Your mileage may differ.



This isn't to say that le Carré hasn't made his bones. For sheer operational skills, he's hard to top. I still think Little Drummer Girl is extraordinary, even if you take it purely as a roadmap on how to mount covert. Legacy of Spies doesn't disappoint, I don't want to give that impression at all. In fact, I wish the book were three hundred and fifty pages long, instead of two-fifty. I'm only saying that le Carré and I take different lessons away from our own histories, our own private fictions.

20 September 2017

Cold War Words, Hot War Words




by Robert Lopresti
You may remember that my last piece here was about the importance of empathy as illustrated by two very different books about intelligence work: John Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Nicholas  Rankin's Masters of Deception.  Today I want to go back to those books to discuss a  different topic: language.
Le Carré is renowned for his plotting and characters but it is his use of words that dazzles me the most.  He invented a vocabulary of spying, most of it in Tinker Tailor, which is both memorable and believable.
When TTSS was adapted for TV and appeared on PBS there was a full-page ad, sponsored by Mobil, I believe, promoting the show and explaining the vocabulary.  Clearly someone thought the average viewer would be baffled by the jargon and give up even before they had a chance to be baffled by the plot. 
The most famous example, of course, is mole, for a double agent, especially one who was working for Side A even before he dug his way into the ranks of Side B.  Le Carré says he borrowed it from Russian intelligence circles although it turns out Sir Francis Bacon used it in the 1600s.  Le Carré says he had not read Bacon, and why should we doubt him?.  What is certain is that mole is part of everyday usage now.
Here are a few more of Le Carre's memorable coinings:
The Circus: MI-6 , so nicknamed for its (fictional) location in London at Cambridge Circus, but of course suggesting the chaos that often goes on there.
Lamplighters: The secret communication and dead letter people.
Breakage: People quitting the Circus.
 Scalphunters: The dirty work crowd, killers, kidnappers, etc.
Joe: Any agent in the field.  "I have to meet one of my joes."
Coat-trailing: Trying to convince the other side that you are a likely candidate to work for them. 
Honey trap: An attractive person set to woo a spy with their physical charms.
And so on.
But it isn't just terminology that makes Le Carré's language so vivid.  Let's take a couple of examples from a later book, Smiley's People.  An old Russian wants to tell George Smiley that he has acquired three facts that might be used to destroy their deadly enemy Karla.  But the coded message he gives is "I have three proofs against the Sandman."  Sends a shiver down my spine.
A few pages later Smiley reflects on the fact that a spy in trouble immediately discards the most valuable thing he is carrying.  But here is how that comes out:  "in the spy trade we abandon first what we love the most."  And that brings it to a whole different level, doesn't it?


My favorite of Le Carre's non-Smiley books is A Perfect Spy.  The protagonist of that one, Magnus Pym, is a double agent (this is not a spoiler) and he writes a confession to his son, although he certainly knows that the boy will never be allowed to read it.  Discussing the years just after World War II, he writes, "Vienna was a divided city like Berlin or your father"  For me, that's a real gut-punch.

What about the new le Carre novel, A Legacy of Spies?  It's very good but only two bits of language leapt out for me.  There is a safe house which Smiley named the Stables.  If that strikes you as having a mythological reference, at least one character in the book agrees with you.

And in a flashback we see the old spy's protege Peter Guillam demanding an explanation of the dodgy operation they were involved in.  Smiley tells him some of the story and then asks:

"Do you now have all the information you require?"
"No."
"I envy you."
 
Classic Smiley.

Moving on to Rankin's book about deception in the wars.  I was fascinated to learn that certain important and familiar words came from World War I. (Rankin notes that they did not appear in the famous eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, which appeared in 1911, but received major attention in the twelfth, after the war.)

Among the new words are propaganda and camouflage.   Also, in the British empire the best shooters were those who could kill small, fast-moving marsh birds called snipes. And, of course, those shooters were called snipers. 

I knew that tank, the word for heavily armored fighting vehicle, came from a bit of World War I deception - they're just spare petrol tanks! - but I had not realized that Ernest Swinton is credited with both the concept and the name.  Swinton was also a writer; his much-imitated Defence of Duffer's Drift turns what could be a pedestrtian lesson in military strategy into a fascinating story. 

And speaking of writers, the Director of Information for Britain during part of the war was John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps.  Oh, and one more?  During World War II, the assistant to the Head of Naval Intelligence had to be a real extrovert, a glad-hander who could play talent-spotter, make nice between competing agencies, and represent the office to the outside world.  The job went to a fellow named Ian Fleming.  Wonder whatever happened to him?

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.


26 November 2014

Tinker Tailor, Soldier Sailor


by David Edgerley Gates

Musings, perhaps, less than a coherent whole, but bear with me.

I was a big fan of LeCarre's from the get-go, with THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, although I remember throwing the book across the room when I finished it. I later liked A SMALL TOWN IN GERMANY a lot, because by then I was familiar with the turf, both physical and internal, but I didn't much care for THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, and actually for similar reasons - I knew sources and methods, and I found the tradecraft in the book unconvincing. Then came TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, THE HONORABLE SCHOOLBOY, and SMILEY'S PEOPLE (collectively, the Quest for Karla), and next, my own personal favorite, THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL. "Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name."

LeCarre's been well-served, by and large, by movie and television adaptions.  THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, with Richard Burton and Oskar Werner, is bracing and intelligent. THE DEADLY AFFAIR (adapted from CALL FOR THE DEAD) is even better - James Mason as George Smiley, although the character's given a different name. LOOKING GLASS WAR? Well, okay, it's got Tony Hopkins, but I think it's a dud. LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, the movie? Not a failure, by any means, just a little out of focus, and abbreviated, of necessity, with a 130-minute runtime. Which brings us to the two back-to-back triumphs, Alex Guinness playing Smiley in the BBC miniseries, first TINKER TAILOR and then SMILEY'S PEOPLE.

What did I think of the more recent feature version of TINKER TAILOR, with Gary Oldman? I have two contradictory reactions. If you didn't know the story, you'd get lost in the thickets. On the other hand, not knowing the story, you wouldn't realize what you're missing. Having read the book more than once, and seen Guinness more than once, I kept noticing holes in the plot - how did Smiley get from Point A to Point B, when they left out the roadmap? But again, if you came to the movie without preconceptions, it might slide right by, nothing in your peripheral vision. The biggest weakness of the Oldman feature isn't Oldman, of course: he's terrific. And the compression, eh, you can't do much about that. The real weakness is in the supporting characters, not the actors, but the parts they play.




Maybe it's comparing apples and oranges. Let's face it, if you give yourself two hours (the movie version), vice five (the BBC version), a lot of stuff is bound to fall by the wayside, but in the TV production, you get a very strong sense of Toby Esterhase and Bill Haydon and Roy Bland, and each of them seem solid, probable suspects - each of them having something to hide, of course - not to mention what a snake Percy Alleline is. That's really what I missed most in the picture, not the careful chess game Smiley plays, but the feeling he's up against a real adversary, or several of them, conspiring.

Obviously, it's easy to take shots at a movie when you don't think it measures up to the book, and there's the obverse, that you can make a better picture out of a generic potboiler than you can from a more heavyweight source. They're two very different mediums, anyway. If you've ever tried to do a screen treatment (I've done a couple), you find out first thing that you're in a foreign country, the environment is at right angles to a novel or a short story. But in either case, it seems to me that it's about gaining the confidence of the audience - maybe with a movie, the audience is more passive than a reader is, if your ideal reader is engaged, but you can't let them slip through your fingers, either way. They surrender their trust, and you have a responsibility to play fair, and give as good as you got.


I'm not, in this sense, complaining. I respected the Gary Oldman picture of TINKER TAILOR - I just wasn't invested in it.  It's likely I was just too ready to find it wanting, compared to the longer Guinness version, which has a lot of room to breathe. And maybe that's the issue. It's the difference between total immersion and a quick, chilly dip in the pool. Both have their virtues. In the case of TINKER TAILOR (and SMILEY'S PEOPLE, as well), I think the stories are better served by a circular, more ambiguous method. It's a matter of pacing. Not the shortest distance between two points, or the most direct, but the long way around, a different rhythm, where time is elastic, and memory an unreliable witness.

DavidEdgerleyGates.com

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.