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

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
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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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.