When Ricky Tarr is recounting his story to George Smiley, he speculates that Boris -- a Russian spy working undercover as a trade delegate -- was "waiting for a connect, working a letterbox, maybe, or trailing his coat and looking for a pass from a mug like me."

This language appears in both the novel and the recent movie version. Do these phrases refer to cut-and-dried spying activities?

The best I can come up with, based on inference and previous rodeos, is this:

  • "waiting for a connect" means hanging out and waiting for a confederate to make contact via established protocol
  • "working a letterbox" might mean sending or receiving QSL cards in coordination with a numbers station
  • "trailing one's coat and looking for a pass" might mean deliberately dropping hints that one is a spy, in the hopes of drawing out enemy spies

That's all I've got. If anyone knows better, I'd love to find out.


1 Answer 1


All three phrases show up on page 40 of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in a single sentence.

"He was waiting for a connect, working a letterbox maybe, or trailing his coat and looking for a pass from a mug like me."

The entire paragraph is:

Once more it was Smiley's turn to receive the heat of Tarr's charm: "So what's it all about, Mr. Smiley? See what I mean? It's little things I'm noticing," he confided, still to Smiley. "Just take the way he sat. Believe me, sir, if we'd been in that place ourselves we couldn't have sat better than Boris. He had the pick of the exits and the stairway; he had a fine view of the main entrance and the action; he was right handed and he was covered by a left-hand wall. Boris was a professional, Mr. Smiley; there was no doubt of it whatsoever. He was waiting for a connect, working a letterbox maybe, or trailing his coat and looking for a pass from a mug like me. Well, now listen: it's one thing to burn a small-time trade delegate. It's quite a different ball game to swing your legs at a Centre trained hood, right Mr. Guilliam?"

waiting for a connect - Merely waiting to meet somebody. A connect is a person's handler or contact.

The source is the novel itself. The term "connect" shows up in several places in the story. An example from the same book: "You want to know who his connect is out there - this magic guy in North Germany with a crock of gold that's going to make us millionaires overnight?"

working a letterbox - Watching a drop off point for an informant. A place where somebody places a "letter" for another to pick up.

The term, "letterbox" is used at multiple locations in the story (and other stories) as a term for where informants drop off materials for their handlers. For example, "Ever seen that bamboo scaffolding they use? Fantastic. Twenty stories high and the coolies swarm all over it with slabs of precast concrete. A bit of discard piping," he said, "handy at shoulder height. It seemed most likely if Irina was in a hurry, that the piping was the letterbox she would use."

The movie, Bridge of Spies, shows a letterbox in the scene where the Russian spy hides a fake nickel under the park bench. The park bench is the "letterbox", a place to put "mail" for pick up later.

trailing one's coat - An officer of one side acting as if he is a likely defector - drinking, complaining about his job, in the hope of attracting a recruitment offer from an enemy intelligence officer, with the object of recruiting the enemy as a double agent instead.

The source for "trailing one's coat" comes from the Wikipedia article on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

looking for a pass - Hoping he can get a recruiter on the other side to defect and become a double agent. Think of how a man might make a pass at a woman in a bar hoping to flirt with her. He makes a pass, and if she reciprocates, the conversation continues to the next step.

Edit to add: John LeCarre claims he invented the spycraft jargon that shows up in his stories. This is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

  • 7
    Do you have any evidence for your statements about what these phrases mean? I don't think the context of the quote makes this completely clear.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 18:03
  • 9
    @Randal'Thor he could show you the evidence, but then he'd have to kill you. 😐
    – verbose
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 19:10
  • 2
    The last two are interesting, because it's not necessarily the case that he's "trailing his coat" and "looking for a pass" with the goal of recruiting a double agent -- Boris might merely be looking to pass mis-information to the Circus while maintaining the pretense that he's a trade delegate. Or he might be trying to get approached by the Circus in order to get information about the current Circus personnel (write their names down in his little black book...). Whatever Boris's intentions, Tarr sees through them, but the whole reason he's in HK is Thessinger didn't.
    – Kevin Troy
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 21:20
  • @Randal'Thor Updated answer to show sources.
    – RichS
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 21:20
  • 1
    Might be worth adding (from the same Wikipedia source you link to, cited to Conversations with John le Carre) that the author claims most of the spy jargon used was his own invention, rather than actual terms used by MI6.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 21:20

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