This question can be based on either the 2011 film of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" with Gary Oldman, or the 1979 BBC series with Alec Guinness.

How did Smiley know he could trust Toby Esterhase?

There is a pivotal scene near the end when Smiley confronts Esterhase. Smiley is able to convince Esterhase that there is a mole and that Witchcraft is a sham, and Esterhase tells Smiley the address of the London safe house. This is the key piece Smiley needs to lay the trap that eventually unmasks the mole.

But Esterhase was one of the four original suspects (Poor Man), so presumably before Smiley could approach Esterhase, he needed to be sure that Esterhase himself was not the mole. What evidence led Smiley to that conclusion?

The meeting with Esterhase comes right after Smiley's long interview with Jim Prideaux. The only mention of Esterhase in the interview is that Esterhase visited Prideaux after his release, to give him money and insist on his silence. Prideaux says that during that visit, Esterhase mentioned the "Tinker, Tailor" code words specifically, and Smiley later comments: "Now how did he know about that?" But his question is never answered.

The only people who initially knew the words Tinker Tailor were Prideaux and Control. If Esterhase had learned it from Control, that would indicate that Control trusted him and presumably Smiley could do the same. But Prideaux had revealed that information during his interrogation in Russia, and so if Esterhase were the mole, he could also have learned it directly from Karla. So I don't understand how the knowledge of the code words exonerates Esterhase.

Of course, another possibility is that Smiley wasn't sure about Esterhase, but decided to gamble. This might fit better with the BBC series, in which Peter Guillam searches Esterhase for weapons and doesn't seem to trust him, but that could just be based on Guillam's personal dislike of Esterhase. But gambling like this seems out of character for Smiley; his approach seems more based on thorough investigation and logical deduction.

I've also read the novel, but didn't find an explanation there either.


7 Answers 7


I think there are two possible reasons.

Firstly, as he was Hungarian, he was the easiest to lean on. Smiley was threatening to deport Esterhase then and there, hence why he took him to a runway. He knew Esterhase was aware of Tinker Tailor, but like the other innocents, he simply didn't believe it, as he felt the information they were being fed was good and was convinced that British Intelligence had a valuable source right at the top of the Russian Intelligence.

As he was Hungarian, Smiley simply pressed him then and there, knowing he would be easy to crack. When he did crack, Smiley deduced the location of the safe house and was able to lay a trap to detect the real mole. It is worth noting that if none of the other members fell for the trap, that would seem to implicate Esterhase.

I think this interpretation is probably the most likely one in the film.

There is a second reason though, which suggests Smiley knew Esterhase wasn't the guilty party. This isn't my own work, but taking from a post made on another site:

I can't remember if this made it to the film, but when Smiley talks to Jerry Westerby, he learns that the Russians knew in advance that Prideaux was on a mission to meet a general. Westerby relates that he told Esterhase this and he was at first interested, but a day later hauled him over the coals for passing along bad intelligence. Smiley realised from this that Esterhase was a puppet, not the puppet-master.

In other words, Esterhase learns the true purpose of Prideaux's mission, but then tells off the source for bad information, suggesting he had been told it was bad information - thus suggesting he was not the real informant, but simply one of the innocent underlings.

Another interesting post from that discussion:

It's one of the joys of the Smiley books that they invite this level of close analysis. The answer, or part of the answer, can be found in The Honourable Schoolboy, where Connie refers back to Smiley's tradecraft in Tinker Tailor:

'He's smoking him out,' she whispered to them all in ecstasy. 'Same as he did with Bill, the clever hound! Lighting a fire on his doorstep, aren't you, darling, and seeing which way he runs.'

Smiley himself describes it as 'shaking the tree'. In other words, even though he still doesn't have firm proof of the mole's identity, he shows his hand to Esterhase in order to move the case forward.

Esterhase's interview with Westerby isn't totally conclusive -- after all, if Esterhase was the mole, he would still have to protect his cover by pretending to be surprised by Westerby's revelations. By this stage, however, we've seen enough of Esterhase to know that he isn't clever or subtle enough to pull this off. Smiley immediately guesses, and even hints to Westerby, that someone else must be pulling Esterhase's strings. (''I expect you wondered who he'd been talking to in between,' said Smiley sympathetically.')

It also becomes clear, in retrospect, that Smiley already has a very strong suspicion of the mole's identity. ('He knew, of course. He had always known .. All of them had tacitly shared that unexpressed half-knowledge which like an illness they hoped would go away if it was never owned to, never diagnosed.') He pulls in Esterhase not because he needs any more information (what Esterhase tells him just confirms what he's already guessed) but because he needs Esterhase's co-operation to set up the safe house to trap the mole.

I can't comment too much on the second reason, as I haven't read the books - but coming from someone who has read the books, it certainly seems that Smiley strongly suspected Esterhase wasn't the mole and simply prodded him to keep the investigation rolling over.

  • 1
    The second explanation is the most convincing, I think. I concentrated on the interview with Prideaux but forgot about what Westerby had to say. The first explanation might work for the movie, but not for the BBC series or the novel, in which the conversation doesn't take place at the airport, and Smiley doesn't explicitly threaten Esterhase. Anyway, +1 and thanks! Jun 26, 2014 at 1:08
  • Esterhase might have learned the true purpose of Prideaux's mission, but he was the junior member of the inner circle, so he might simply have been told some other story or just instructed to warn off Jerry Westerby. Mar 4, 2017 at 4:47
  • "I can't remember if this made it to the film, but when Smiley talks to Jerry Westerby, he learns that the Russians knew in advance that Prideaux was on a mission to meet a general. Westerby relates that he told Esterhase this and he was at first interested, but a day later hauled him over the coals for passing along bad intelligence. Smiley realised from this that Esterhase was a puppet, not the puppet-master." Thank you -- this is in the movie as well - I missed it earlier and was puzzling why George ruled out Esterhase.
    – user353829
    Feb 27, 2018 at 7:31

The explanation is in the book in a few almost throwaway lines when he is doing his research in Pope Grahams hotel room reading through witchcraft reports.

If I remember correctly the gist of it is, Esterhase was out of London during a couple of instances when Source Merlin produced topical reports and another couple of topical reports were produced when Polyakov was not in London and Esterhase was in London.

The scene concludes with Smiley finally feeling like he is making some progress and takes a celebratory bath.


To answer a subset of the question - how did Toby Esterhase know about Tinker Tailor? - Haydon told him, and Haydon heard about it directly from Prideaux. This is revealed right near the end of the film, when Smiley is talking to the detained Haydon at Sarratt. Smiley asks "Did Prideaux tell you about Budapest before he went?" Haydon's silence confirmed yes and Smiley finished "To warn you, because he knew it was you all along."


I think Smiley has a very good knowledge of Toby Esterhazy's character. It was Smiley who first recruited Toby and if you read the books what comes across is the sanctity of the prime relationship that is developed between spies and the people who run them - it is the good heart (they choose to believe) which lies deep beneath all the bad deeds and compromises that these people do and have. Its deeper than love of country/patriotism, politics etc. Despite the fact that Toby chose Alleline et al over Control and Smiley, after Operation Justify, George knows that their basic (true) relationship (him being Toby's father figure, saviour/mentor) will enable him to suss the truth out of Toby. All he needs to do is get him alone in a room. This does not work in the film because they chose Control to be Toby's rescuer/father/mentor figure, so they applied a completely bogus method of pressure on the Toby character.


Smiley believed Esterhase BECAUSE Esterhase was begging not to be sent back to the east where he was a wanted man. If Esterhase were the mole, going back would be safe. Since he obviously was frightened of going back, he couldn't be the mole.

  • While it may not have been the answer in the book - I think this is a plausible answer. One can surmise that Smiley had to make progress and chose to challenge Esterhase and see what sort of reaction he got. He may still not entirely trusted him afterwards, but he chose the person he thought was least likely to be the mole.
    – iandotkelly
    Feb 13, 2022 at 1:12

Esterhase knew of Tinker Tailer because his source Merlin told him. Kara got the information from torturing Prideaux but he already knew because Prideaux told/warned Haydon who in turn warned Karla. Karla used Merlin to give the impression to Percy Alleline/Esterhase/Roy Bland that Merlin was the mole Control suspected. As they were the ones giving Meriln the information (old information) in return for what they thought was the crown jewels. To protect their source Merlin they told Prideaux not to mention it as it would uncover their source. We then find out that Merlin was infact Haydons's handler and was taking the crown jewels from Haydon. Esterhause knew of Tinker Tailor bacause Merlin told them, if Esterhase and co thought Merlin was the mole Control was after they would get rid of anyone (eg Connie Sachs) digging around to protect their source Merlin, when infact they were just protecting the real mole Haydon.


I'm chiming in on the subset question of how Esterhase came to know the words "Tinker Tailor." I have recently rewatched the BBC version on YouTube (where, by the way, I learned that there is a 7 episode version and a 6 episode version, with cuts) and I do not see George asking Jim P. if he spoke to Bill H. before leaving for Checko. Yet, I somehow remember this scene. Perhaps it is in the movie. It makes some sense that Jim would talk to Bill about the mission before he left, for the reasons stated above, but Control was very forceful and clear in his instructions. Jim not much of a spy if he immediately tells Bill about the mission. What I was left with to answer the question of how Esterhase came to know about Tinker Tailor, is that he got it from Bill, who got it from Karla, who got it from Jim. Bill probably sent Esterhase to tell Jim to forget about the secret Control meeting and Tinker Tailor. I would like to know what the book says about this.

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