The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carré

The Blurb On The Back:

Alec Leamas is tired.  It’s the 1960s, he’s been out in the cold for years, spying in the shadow of the Berlin Wall for his British masters.  Now Control wants to bring him in at last – but only after one final assignment.  He must travel deep into the heart of Communist Germany and betray his country, a job that he will do with his usual cynical professionalism.  But when George Smiley tries to help a young woman Leamas has befriended, it may prove the worst thing he could ever have done.

Le Carré’s breakthrough work of 1963 was an award-winning number one global bestseller and brought him international renown, redefining the spy story as a gritty and terrible tale of men who are caught up in politics beyond their imagining. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Berlin; early 1960s.  Alec Leamas has been living in West Berlin and running a network of spies in East Germany for the British for the last 10 years.  In the last couple of years, however, his assets have been run to ground and liquidated one-by-one thanks to the emergence of Hans-Dieter Mundt who returned to East Berlin after killing two of his own agents in London and eventually became deputy director of operations at the Abteilung.

When Leamas’s last and biggest asset, Karl Riemeck, is killed trying to cross the border, Leamas is summoned back to London where Control brings him in on a plan that involves Leamas turning traitor.  But while in London he has a relationship with Liz Gold (a member of the Communist Party) and when George Smiley later tries to help her, it kickstarts a chain of events that puts both Leamas and Gold in terrible danger …

The third in John Le Carré’s GEORGE SMILEY SERIES (a follow-up to CALL FOR THE DEAD) has Smiley very much in a minor (albeit critical) supporting role but that doesn’t matter as this ice-cold, ruthless, brutal spy thriller novel is an exquisitely plotted affair about treachery and counter-espionage and how lives become disposable to those in power when it suits their interests in what is commonly viewed as a classic spy novel.

Le Carré is a controlled and supremely clever plotter and this novel is no exception.  It’s really clever how he sets up his storyline and then introduces subplots that seem to go in one direction but end up completely uprooting your whole understanding of the overall story.  Be aware that this version comes with an introduction by William Boyd who spoils some of the main twists although if you read the introduction afterwards it is really interesting.

This is a bleak book, riddled with cynicism – much of it vocalised by Leamas who plays his part with a weary determination to get the job done, only to find himself outplayed in the final scenes, which are really well done as he works out what’s been really going on, with the final pages serving as a devastating and brutal conclusion.  Boyd has a theory in the introduction about what it means to “come in from the cold” and how it relates to contact with emotions and intimacy and when I re-read the book I came away with that impression.

By contrast I found Liz to be a little too naïve and gullible, both about the Communist Party and human nature and her instant love for the older Leamas is a little hard to believe and somewhat convenient (although I did wonder if part of the reason it’s there is to serve as a red herring by making the reader assume it’s part of a set up).  Part of the problem here is that Liz is rather underwritten but I find this a recurring issue with Le Carré’s female characters – they tend to be underwritten and there to emphasise a point rather than to be a person in their own right.

It’s a tense read with plenty of twists.  The interrogation scenes are especially well done but Le Carré also turns a courtroom scene into a masterclass of twist, reveal and double-cross that had me on the edge of my seat.  Although Smiley is very much on the periphery of the book, his role is still critical even if there’s no real character development or new information here.  In fact, I suspect that you’d get more of a sense of his motivation here if you’ve read CALL FOR THE DEAD first (I have to confess that I haven’t read it but you don’t really need to in order to follow the plot – it really is something that’s more for Smiley fans).

My criticisms aside, it is easy to see why this is usually cited as one of the greatest spy thriller novels of the 20th century and I definitely think it’s a must-read for anyone who enjoys the genre.

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