Stephen Carter On The Artful Thrill Of 'Tinker, Tailor'

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Stephen L. Carter i

Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The New York Times bestseller The Emperor of Ocean Park as well as many other works of fiction and nonfiction. Elena Seibert hide caption

toggle caption Elena Seibert
Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The New York Times bestseller The Emperor of Ocean Park as well as many other works of fiction and nonfiction.

Elena Seibert

In our series Thrilled to Death, suspense writers talk with us about their work, and then recommend the books they love.

Before writing his first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, Stephen Carter — a law professor at Yale University — outlined the plot using a story board. The result was vaguely reminiscent of a science fair project and while he quickly abandoned the story board method, he has gone on to write a number of works of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent novel, Jericho's Fall, was published in July 2009.

Carter says he still uses outlines for his novels but they have little to do with the final outcome. Unlike his nonfiction, where the writing is straightforward, Carter finds that by chapter four of his fiction the characters have become so complex that they simply won't go along with what he had planned for them in chapter five.

Carter talks with NPR's Michele Norris about why a snowstorm is the best time to work, how writing fiction is different from writing nonfiction and his upcoming novel — an 1860s courtroom thriller about Abraham Lincoln.

You can hear their conversation by clicking the "Listen" link at the top of the page. Below, read Carter's recommendation of John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
By John le Carre
Paperback, 400 pages
List price: $16

Read An Excerpt

Recommended Thriller: 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' by John le Carre

By Stephen Carter

I first dipped into the novels of John le Carre when I was in college, and I never quite recovered. The le Carre oeuvre stretches from his early murder mysteries, through the wildly successful Smiley series, to the more recent books, which are politically more hard-edged. I have read them all, most many times. Yet after all these years, my favorite remains Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, published during the height of the Cold War. In Tinker, Tailor, le Carre tells the story of a mole hunt inside British Intelligence — or, as le Carre would have it, the "Circus."

He was of course inspired by history — Kim Philby and le Carre's own mole bear striking resemblance to one another — and there is very little mystery to the tale. Even the casual reader will figure out midway through the novel which of the several unpleasant senior Circus staffers is the bad apple. The more clever twist is how precisely the mole was planted in the first place — but never mind. The novel snares you from the first page, when we learn of a mysterious new hire at an elite British grammar school. So adroitly does the author deploy this unusual setting that we find ourselves wonderfully enmeshed in the petty politics of the academy before we remember that we are, after all, reading a spy novel.

Yes, le Carre writes thrillers, and one reads him for the plot. But one loves him for his use of language, his ability to set a scene, and the sheer near-Dickensian joy he takes in the characters themselves. Indeed, it is fair to say that le Carre's flair for character is matched by no thriller writer working today. Consider, for example, Toby Esterhase, who appears in several le Carre novels, but is introduced in Tinker, Tailor — he of the "little granite jaw" and a "lofty artificial Englishness." In one scene we find him "stooped over him like a head-waiter, a stiff-backed miniature ambassador with silvery hair and a crisp unfriendly jaw." Later we learn: "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." Three brief descriptions, and we feel as if we have known him all our lives.

Marvelous craftsmanship: a stylishness that would do the most celebrated literary novelist proud. Tinker, Tailor is as perfect a spy yarn as one is likely to find — and a great novel on top of it. John le Carre, more than any other writer, inspired me to try my hand at thrillers. I am not of course in his class. But he taught me that one need not sacrifice art to keep the reader turning the pages.

Thrilled to Death is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with help from Gabe O'Conner, Chelsea Jones and Miriam Krule.

Excerpt: 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
By John le Carre
Paperback, 400 pages
List price: $16

The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn't dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood's at all. He came in mid-term without an interview — late May, it was, though no one would have thought it from the weather — employed through one of the shiftier agencies specialising in supply teachers for prep schools, to hold down old Dover's teaching till someone suitable could be found. "A linguist," Thursgood told the common-room, "a temporary measure," and brushed away his forelock in self-defence. "Priddo." He gave the spelling, "P-r-i-d" — French was not Thursgood's subject so he consulted the slip of paper — "e-a-u-x, first name James. I think he'll do us very well till July." The staff had no difficulty in reading the signals. Jim Prideaux was a poor white of the teaching community. He belonged to the same sad bunch as the late Mrs. Loveday, who had a Persian-lamb coat and stood in for junior divinity until her cheques bounced, or the late Mr. Maltby, the pianist who had been called from choir practice to help the police with their enquiries, and as far as anyone knew was helping them to this day, for Maltby's trunk still lay in the cellar awaiting instructions. Several of the staff, but chiefly Marjoribanks, were in favour of opening that trunk. They said it contained notorious missing treasures: Aprahamian's silver-framed picture of his Lebanese mother, for instance; Best-Ingram's Swiss army penknife and Matron's watch. But Thursgood set his creaseless face resolutely against their entreaties. Only five years had passed since he had inherited the school from his father, but they had taught him already that some things are best locked away.

Jim Prideaux arrived on a Friday in a rainstorm. The rain rolled like gun-smoke down the brown combes of the Quantocks, then raced across the empty cricket fields into the sandstone of the crumbling facades. He arrived just after lunch, driving an old red Alvis and towing a second-hand trailer that had once been blue. Early afternoons at Thursgood's are tranquil, a brief truce in the running fight of each school day. The boys are sent to rest in their dormitories, the staff sit in the common-room over coffee reading newspapers or correcting boys' work. Thursgood reads a novel to his mother. Of the whole school, therefore, only little Bill Roach actually saw Jim arrive, saw the steam belching from the Alvis's bonnet as it wheezed its way down the pitted drive, windscreen wipers going full pelt and the trailer shuddering through the puddles in pursuit.

Roach was a new boy in those days and graded dull, if not actually deficient. Thursgood's was his second prep school in two terms. He was a fat round child with asthma, and he spent large parts of his rest kneeling on the end of his bed, gazing through the window. His mother lived grandly in Bath; his father was agreed to be the richest in the school, a distinction which cost the son dear. Coming from a broken home, Roach was also a natural watcher. In Roach's observation Jim did not stop at the school buildings but continued across the sweep to the stable yard. He knew the layout of the place already. Roach decided later that he must have made a reconnaissance or studied maps. Even when he reached the yard, he didn't stop but drove straight onto the wet grass, travelling at speed to keep the momentum. Then over the hummock into the Dip, head-first and out of sight. Roach half expected the trailer to jackknife on the brink, Jim took it over so fast, but instead it just lifted its tail and disappeared like a giant rabbit into its hole.

The Dip is a piece of Thursgood folklore. It lies in a patch of wasteland between the orchard, the fruit house, and the stable yard. To look at, it is no more than a depression in the ground, grass covered, with hummocks on the northern side, each about boy height and covered in tufted thickets which in summer grow spongy. It is these hummocks that give the Dip its special virtue as a playground and also its reputation, which varies with the fantasy of each new generation of boys. They are the traces of an open-cast silver mine, says one year, and digs enthusiastically for wealth. They are a Romano-British fort, says another, and stages battles with sticks and clay missiles. To others the Dip is a bomb-crater from the war and the hummocks are seated bodies buried in the blast. The truth is more prosaic. Six years ago, and not long before his abrupt elopement with a receptionist from the Castle Hotel, Thursgood's father had launched an appeal for a swimming pool and persuaded the boys to dig a large hole with a deep and a shallow end. But the money that came in was never quite enough to finance the ambition, so it was frittered away on other schemes, such as a new projector for the art school, and a plan to grow mushrooms in the school cellars. And even, said the cruel ones, to feather a nest for certain illicit lovers when they eventually took flight to Germany, the lady's native home.

Jim was unaware of these associations. The fact remains that by sheer luck he had chosen the one corner of Thursgood's academy which, as far as Roach was concerned, was endowed with supernatural properties.

Roach waited at the window but saw nothing more. Both the Alvis and the trailer were in dead ground, and if it hadn't been for the wet red tracks across the grass he might have wondered whether he had dreamed the whole thing. But the tracks were real, so when the bell went for the end of rest he put on his rubber boots and trudged through the rain to the top of the Dip and peered down, and there was Jim dressed in an army raincoat and a quite extraordinary hat, broadbrimmed like a safari hat but hairy, with one side pinned up in a rakish piratical curl and the water running off it like a gutter.

The Alvis was in the stable yard; Roach never knew how Jim spirited it out of the Dip, but the trailer was right down there, at what should have been the deep end, bedded on platforms of weathered brick, and Jim was sitting on the step drinking from a green plastic beaker, and rubbing his right shoulder as if he had banged it on something, while the rain poured off his hat. Then the hat lifted and Roach found himself staring at an extremely fierce red face, made still fiercer by the shadow of the brim and by a brown moustache washed into fangs by the rain. The rest of the face was criss-crossed with jagged cracks, so deep and crooked that Roach concluded in another of his flashes of imaginative genius that Jim had once been very hungry in a tropical place and filled up again since. The left arm still lay across his chest, the right shoulder was still drawn high against his neck. But the whole tangled shape of him was stock-still, he was like an animal frozen against its background: a stag, thought Roach, on a hopeful impulse; something noble.

Excerpted from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre. Copyright 1977 by David Cornwell. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

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