Same Words, New Meaning


I recently finished re-reading Deighton’s Samson novels, and now I’m re-reading the le Carré Smiley series. The words on the page haven’t changed in the years since I first read them, though I’ve changed a great deal; as a result, these are no longer the same books, at least to me. I find myself reading them less for the plot and more for the settings and characters. If I recall correctly, for example, I first encountered middle-aged Bernard Samson in Berlin Game when I wasn’t yet 20. Now that I’m middle-aged myself, I can empathize with his challenges and, perhaps even more so, his cynicism.
      Philosophical musings aside, I’d like to share an excerpt from Call for the Dead that red teamers might appreciate. About three-quarters of the way through the book, George Smiley finds himself confronted with a set of discordant “facts” regarding the alleged suicide of one Samuel Fennan. Try as he might, Smiley just can’t fit what he knows into a reasonably consistent narrative. (“Nothing made sense, nothing.”)
      Alone in his home, Smiley reviews the case while pondering a grouping of Dresden figurines. As le Carré recounts,

As he stood gazing at the little shepherdess, poised internally between her two admirers, [Smiley] realized dispassionately that there was another quite different solution to the case of Samuel Fennan, a solution which matched every detail of circumstance, reconciled the nagging inconsistencies apparent in Fennan’s character. The realization began as an academic exercise without reference to personality; Smiley maneuvered the characters like pieces in a puzzle, twisting them this way and that to fit the complex framework of establish facts and then, in a moment, the pattern had suddenly re-formed with such assurance that it was a game no more.1

      Reading that passage, you can almost hear the “click” as Smiley lands on a fitting hypothesis. It doesn’t mean he’s right, of course (though he is), but it’s impressive to read how le Carré communicates the creative choreography of Smiley’s mind. Smiley in this case acts like a good red teamer by moving away from the settled but unsettling hypothesis toward a detached, fluid state of mind in which new hypotheses can emerge.
      Fictional or not, standing hypotheses can be difficult to discard. Even ill-fitting hypotheses often assert a comfortable familiarity that belies their underlying flaws. (After all, we’d be foolish to believe that even the best of hypotheses must be perfect, right?) And while the ability to fashion new hypotheses is definitely a critical red teaming skill, equally important is the ability to identify when a rethink is needed.
      It’s another reason why you’d never want to staff your organization with cookie-cutter red teamers. What often drives a decisive rethink isn’t a new “fact” or a new piece of intelligence but a slight shift in someone’s personal lens. You might even say it’s akin to what sometimes happens when re-reading an old book decades later.

  1. John le Carré, Call for the Dead (1961) in the omnibus The First Three Novels edition, pp. 129–130. []


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