The First Line of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A lesson In Excellence

Perhaps the most famous work of the late John LeCarre begins:

“The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races, Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.”

That’s such a great opener. To a casual eye it may seem not to be doing much of anything but it’s actually doing a heckuva lot of work. I’ll show you what I mean.

TONE: It’s wonderfully conversational, the sort of thing a colleague might say to you at your workplace’s smoking shelter. Half-whispered gossip spoken in confidence.

WORLD: If the book’s cover had been torn away and you were left with nothing but the text you would still know where the story was set just from reading the first line. Old Major Dover dropped dead at the races: we’re in Britain (You would know that even if you’d never heard of the town of Taunton. Where else would a character like ‘Old Major Dover’ come from?). The Major is obviously a military man, an establishment figure and likely a member of the upper-middle classes by birth. And yet he dies at the races, probably while betting on the nags. So this is the upper-middle classes gone to seed, that’s let itself go and is on to its third scotch of the afternoon. Sunset on the Empire, all that stuff. This is the world Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy will swim through.

HOOK!: The important bit! The first line of any story has to persuade the reader’s eye to the second line (and so on and so on). That’s called the hook. So what does LeCarre do? Well, there’s a sudden death of course—that never fails to raise an eyebrow—but there’s so much more here. Who is this Jim? He’s clearly going to be remarkable in some way because if he wasn’t the fact he has come to Thursgood’s (and that’s yet ANOTHER hook. Who or what is Thurgood’s?) wouldn’t be remarkable at all. Sheer chance has put Jim where he is and that, it’s implied, has made all the difference. And then there’s those three opening words: ‘The truth is…’. Does that mean there’s misunderstandings about the situation? Lies even? Don’t tell me you don’t want to know more!

THEME: Here’s the clever bit that isn’t at all obvious from the first page: ‘The truth is…’ is a spectre that will come to haunt the entire novel. The main character (whom we haven’t even met yet) will be on a constant search for the truth. He’ll have to sift through many ‘truths’ offered by the other characters and they will all be liars to one degree or another. There’s an irony to the novel’s first three words. The truth never simply ‘is’, not in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

There you go. Tone, world, hook and theme all in just 22 words. That’s peerless craftsmanship and the world is the less for John LeCarre’s passing. We’re just lucky he’s left us so many masterpieces.

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