Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Detective

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Dec 31, 2012

All of the real-life great detectives I profiled in Brilliant Deduction have some sort of connection with their fictional counterparts’ world. Sometimes direct “crossovers” in person, sometimes inspiration for fictional analogues. And sometimes it’s hard to tell, as with the relationship between “Paddington” Pollaky and Sherlock Holmes, which I spend some time exploring in the book.

I suspect that the former was a part inspiration for the latter, though it’s possible that some or all of the associations between them are unintentional. I’m certain that’s the case with a couple of other fictional characters who, in one way or another, remind me of “the well-known Pollaky of Paddington Green.”

I’ll probably always think of Pollaky whenever I watch the magnificent Life and Death of Colonel Blimp from now on, in at least one scene; oddly enough, moreover, out of all the film’s memorable characters it’s the governess Edith who recalls Pollaky. An Englishwoman in Germany when the title character meets her, Edith explains that so far as she can discern she has only one real skill, that being an excellent command of the English language. As teaching English to English children would be “carrying coals to Newcastle,” she had elected to seek employment on the Continent where English fluency might command more of a premium. I don’t know why Pollaky made the opposite journey in his own youth, but I can’t help guessing that something of the same thinking may have played a role.

Pollaky had a good grasp of several languages, apparently, though unlike Edith it’s also a mystery as to which, precisely, was his native tongue. Which leads to one more, presumably unintentional fictional parallel: Toby Esterhase.

Esterhase was, as I recall, introduced in John LeCarré’s masterful Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and played prominent parts in it and the later Smiley’s People. Even among spies Esterhase was a perpetually shifty character, though despite the verdict of someone in the British Ministry of Home Security (an “adventurer” of “doubtful character”), this isn’t what reminds me of Pollaky. Rather, it’s Esterhase’s characterization as the quintessential “Continental” of indefinite origin*, particularly when it comes to languages. From Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:

…Toby spoke no known language perfectly, but he spoke them all. In Switzerland, [his colleague Peter] Guilllam 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 vowel sounds.

As with so many things involving Pollaky, one must imagine the details of his own speech, and accent(s), if any. But this sounds exactly like I, at any rate, imagine Pollaky the Austro-Hungarian whose specific origins couldn’t be pinned down with any more detail than “somewhere in eastern-central Europe, probably” (also like Toby).

* Esterhase’s foreignness is sort of fudged in the two BBC adaptations featuring Alec Guinness; I can’t speak for the more recent Tinker, Tailor feature film as I’ve not seen it.

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