The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Considered to be one of the best spy thrillers of the modern age, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the the novel that put John le Carré's on the best-seller list (and essentially he's there to stay. Given this fantastic piece, it is well-deserved. Published in 1963, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was le Carré's third novel, but the first espionage thriller of its kind -- namely, the first with the painfully realistic notion that there is no "good" or "bad" side in a conflict and no one is particularly moral or just when it might come at the expense of victory.

Alec Leamas is a burned-out English spy enduring his final mission so that he might "come in from the cold" and retire after a long career in the British Secret Intelligence Service. This chance comes shortly after Leamas's stint as commander of the West Berlin office where he witnessed his last decent agent get shot trying to escape East Berlin. Now, his job is to destroy his own life and give the illusion of a washed-up agent ill-used by his superiors so that he might appear to be a man who's very willing to defect to the East German Communists and sell them information. Leamas is a pro and he plays his role well -- except he does what it seems like every spy does... he gets involved with a girl. Liz Gold is a young Jewish woman who works at a library, a registered Communist who falls hard for Leamas, even though he tries to push her away (though he doesn't try very hard). Whether Leamas falls in love with Liz or simply develops an affection for her, no one should be too surprised if Liz becomes a liability in the high-stakes game that he's playing. Before diving headfirst into his dealings with the East German Communists, he makes Liz promise to not try and find him and similarly asks his British superiors to leave her alone. Yeah. Sure.

To say too much about the plot would be criminal, so I'll simply note that it's all quite worth reading. It's so refreshing to find a novel where things move quickly and the author doesn't pander to a slow audience. I actually wondered at the beginning of the book if I was going to be quick enough to follow along with everything, particularly considering my Cold War knowledge is a bit rusty, but it turned out I had everything I needed to know. The thing that's fascinating now is to be familiar with the jaded concept that neither side is "right" in a conflict, but to see the origin of this idea in the novel that best brought it to light in terms of the modern age. Clearly, this is no James Bond novel where he easily bests the bad guys in the name of Queen and country while sleeping with sexy women and drinking martinis. Leamas is a grizzled case who's been in the field for much too long and he's beyond disillusioned with it all... and yet still, he might retain his own understanding of honor. He's lived a cover for so long that who knows what is "true" and it takes a woman from the outside to prove that not everything is about lies and subterfuge... but such a perspective can hardly survive the onslaught of underhanded dealings. There is, indeed, a real villain in this story, but an individual's blackened soul doesn't necessarily represent an entire country, particularly when the only other true idealist with a good dream to improve the lives of his people is on the exact same side. Leamas, despite being disillusioned with it all, still does seem to have some moral understanding and perhaps that's what draws him to naive Liz.

My book club read this at the suggestion of a member who is writing her own spy novel and so has been immersing herself in fiction and non-fiction that pertains to the topic as research. Perhaps an unlikely choice, it made for some great discussion as we dissected the motives of various characters and sighed over just how annoying Liz was. (Seriously, it's painful how useless and frustrating she was in the face of everything.) There was a movie made of this novel that a few of us had seen, though I personally casted Jeremy Irons as Leamas as I read the book and pictured everything playing out. So much of this spy work is about calculation, planning, and nervous execution. Whenever physical force is used, it's rarely flashy and frequently fails in its objective. It's certainly not the spy thriller that we're all familiar with, but that only makes it more interesting.

John le Carré is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, a former MI5 and MI6 employee who was very familiar with the intelligence game. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was so successful that it enabled Cornwell to quit MI6 and start writing full time. His first two novels featured the character George Smiley, who makes a brief appearance in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as having a role in the British side of this plan (though not an official Circus agent, supposedly), and Smiley became one of le Carré's leading protagonists. The author calls The Spy Who Came in from the Cold one of his best four novels and it's quite easy to see why. Despite having the appearance of a jaded man and a lone wolf, Leamas is an incredibly sympathetic hero. Before reading this, I had kind of passed over le Carré as a writer whose work wasn't quite my style, but such intelligent writing about the spy game is fascinating for any smart reader with the desire to be told a twisted and complicated story. I already have my eye on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as a future read for when I want to dive into le Carré once more... though I certainly hope that future female characters are a bit less irritating than poor Liz or I'll be quickly disappointed.

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