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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Mystery Solved at the Harry Ransom Center

By Natalie Zelt

As a graduate intern, I have the opportunity to respond to a variety of research queries about the collections. Recently, I helped solve a mystery laid by two differing editions of John le Carré’s 1974 thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carré’s biographer, Adam Sisman, was trying to get to the bottom of a story he had once heard about a difference between the first edition of the novel in the United States and in England.

 

According to Sisman, just before Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was about to be published, David Cornwall (alias John le Carré) had been travelling in Laos and Cambodia with Washington Post journalist David Greenway, and Cornwall had asked Greenway to look through the segments of the novel set in Hong Kong.

 

Early in the novel, Ricki Tarr describes to George Smiley his anxiety after Irina has failed to appear at a rendezvous: on a hunch he had decided to go down to the airport. “I took the Star Ferry, hired a cab, and told the driver to go like hell. It got like a panic,” Tarr tells Smiley. The airport was then in Kowloon, across the water from Hong Kong Island.

 

After reading this passage, Greenway asked Cornwall, “Does this novel take place in the present?”

 

“Yes, why?”

 

“So if he’s so anxious to get to the airport quickly, why doesn’t he just jump in a cab and go through the tunnel?” (The Cross Harbor Tunnel linking Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, the location of the airport, had opened in 1972.)

 

“Oh, God!”

 

As soon as they reached Bangkok, Cornwall contacted his publishers, and though the American edition had already gone to press, it was not too late to change the passage in the British edition.

The Ransom Center has the first British edition and the first American edition. True to Le Carré’s enigmatic style, Sisman asked me to check the “the fourth sentence of the penultimate paragraph of Chapter 7” in both.

 

Being that it was a spy novel, I was a little nervous about what I would find, but Sisman was right. The American edition mentions the ferry; the British does not. It was a bit of an added thrill to be able to trace the movements of a spy in two different editions.

 

Adam Sisman’s John Le Carré: The Biography will be published by HarperCollins in the United States and by Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom next fall.

 

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Comments

Mark Sohn
Reply

Gold star for you, I think. I came here during a trawl for a piece I’m doing on Cornwell and enjoyed what I found. As an (ersatz) writer, I often send my characters down roads I haven’t trod – often fatal and never wise. It’s the little things that turn a character to mulch, such as the Tarr Tunnel…
Thank You.

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