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[718] The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – John le Carré


” For God’s sake believe me. I hate it, I hate it all; I’m tired. But it’s the world, it’s mankind tat’s gone mad. We’re a tiny price to pay . . . but everywhere’s the same, people cheated and misled, whole lives thrown away, people shot and in prison, whole groups and classes of men written off for nothing. ” (Ch.25, p.221)

For a spy fiction published in 1963, other than the obvious anachronisms like the Berlin Wall, the book does not feel dated at all. The plot deals with a British case officer working in West Berlin who, after losing his last agent operating in East Germany, a high-ranking official possessing knowledge of German intelligence, returns to London to consider retirement. But he must face up to his failure by reporting personally to Control, the head of operation in West Berlin. Certain that his age, and the ignominious collapse of his intelligence network that one time was the glory of the British Secret Service will spell disaster for his career in the eyes of his superiors, Alec Leamas reviews his life.

All our works—yours and mine—is rooted in the theory that the whole is more important than the individual . . . The exploitation of individuals can only be justified by the collective need, can’t it? (Ch.12, p.118)

But Control has one last assignment for Leamas before he can “come in from the cold.” To bring Leamas to the East Germans’ attention as a potential defector, Circus sacks him, leaving him with a small pension. He initiates this secret mission by assaulting a grocer and gets himself arrested. Following his release, he is approached by East German recruiter, and is taken to meet the higher echelons of the Abteilung. From here, this tightly woven, brilliantly executed plot moves at an incredibly fast pace and is filled with superb twists, with characters who all blur the lines between good and bad. Mundt is a former Nazi who is one of the top men in Abteilung. Fiedler, head of East German counter-intelligence, is secretly plotting the downfall of Mundt, whom he believes to be an English double agent. The alliance with Fiedler, who wants to frame Mundt, works in Leamas’ advantage to rid of Mundt, who was responsible for the collapse of Leamas’ network in East Germany. But nothing is what it seems.

Despite the intriguing plot, it’s what the author is talking about that makes this book excellent. Le Carré uses the novel to explore unethical world of espoionage. The theme about how the supposed “good guys” were just as willing to use any individual or deal with any devil to get the job done as the “bad guys” were is just as relevant today as it was when the book was first written. Moral uncertainty still prevails. Le Carré doesn’t give us any heroes; in short, there are no good guys in this story, only bad guys. The end is fatally terminal and inevitable. The book is suspenseful, perfectly edited, and packed with more plot than any book of its size. The book truly defines the genre of spy fiction.

229 pp. Sceptre UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]


5 Responses

  1. Sounds great! I hope to read it sometime.

  2. Yes, yes, and yes. I wish more people would read it. We might not be in the throes of the Cold War anymore, but the espionage game has not changed since then. Everyone needs to realize that in the world of spies, there is no good or bad. Le Carre captures that idea perfectly.

  3. I was just telling someone that I wanted to read more books like this one. I may have read one Le Carré novel in my life but suddenly I feel hungry for this kind of stuff. Really enjoy your reviews.

  4. Read this last year. Will review it soon. The thing I enjoyed most was the evocation of place, time, and the squalor to them. The moral ambiguities must have originally been shocking.

  5. There is very good film version featuring Richard Burton in the lead role. As I recall, it stays very faithful to the book. Le Carre is still one of the best in the spy genre as far as I’m concerned.

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