If you were to try and draw a family tree of creative genres, then the crime novel and the spy thriller must be closer than kissing cousins. Many of the finest authors of both have dabbled in the other, aided by the structural similarities. The central focus on investigation is shared – almost all spy thrillers have at their heart a mystery to be solved.
The differences are important, and allow one to become a critique on the other. One key difference could be expressed as “agency”. Detectives rarely have any investment or personal interest in their investigations and so to a large extent are interchangeable, or at the very least, can be cut out of the crime’s narrative. This is what made The Murder of Roger Ackroyd more interesting than the average Poirot outing; as an implicit interrogation of most of the usual writing techniques of the detective novel.
Probably equally important is the concept of a fraternity between Spies; there is an often-explicit understanding that all the participants have somehow opted into a secret society with its own rules and regulations; there is a hazy line of demarcation, excluding the involvement of those who aren’t part of the system. The usual target of spy intrigue is another spy, or someone fairly intimately connected with a spy.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film within just such circumscribed limits: it is about spies spying on each other, about their internal subterfuges and misinterpretations. Mark Kermode said that it’s not about spies, it’s about the lack of trust between a circle of men – but that’s what spying is. The question at the heart of the film is: who is the mole? The results of the interviews reveal the ornate structure of the KGB/MI6 intertwined structure, and most of the widely-accepted conventions of that structure are touched upon. The only “action” which occurs are a series of interviews in which Smiley pieces this together and then reveals the answer – it’s as isolated and formal as any manor-house detective novel.
It is probably more interesting though, to read TTSS against what is probably the premier work of criminal fiction of the last decade: The Wire. If you list the structural features of TTSS, you get some idea that the actual stakes of the conflict are submerged below the point where decisions are really made (hat tip to Baudrilliard in in the applicability of his term “hypereality”) – it becomes foremost a game. “The Great Game” from Kipling’s Kim.
A return to The Wire starts to tease out numerous structural parallels. The emphasis changes from a criminal investigation, to a game of information and misinformation. The police, far from being the disinterested and personally separated agents of crime-solving, are active and complicit agents in a war that seldom breaks into open violence; they are compromised and blinded by the system of rules which governs their game.
The Wire, I now think, may actually be a greater spy story than anything Chandler or Christie would recognise as criminal.
[Edit: Just to say, I do plan to do more with this later, but I’m still thinking about that, and this part seems self-contained enough to post without disadvantage to it]