John le Carré: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The Spy Who Came in from the ColdThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold
John le Carré
First published in the UK by Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1963
This edition Penguin Classics, 2010
ISBN: 9780141194523
258 pages
Score 4/5

‘What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs?’

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the book which transformed the literature of espionage from colourful yarns of derring-do to stories of drab, flawed functionaries trapped in the gears of vast political machines they barely understand.

Alec Leamas is a British agent in West Berlin, managing a network of spies on the other side of the Wall. The book opens with him anxiously waiting for his chief informant Karl Riemeck to make the dangerous trip between East and West. Things go badly, signalling the end of Leamas’s career in Berlin. Mundt, the East German spymaster, has been systematically killing Leamas’s sources, and Riemeck is the last to go. No network, no future for Leamas.

Leamas’s boss, the donnish Control, decides Mundt has to go, and persuades Leamas to stay ‘out in the cold’ long enough to bring about his demise.

‘We have to live without sympathy, don’t we? That’s impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren’t like that really, I mean … one can’t be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold … d’you see what I mean?’
‘I can’t talk like this, Control,’ Leamas said at last. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘I want you to stay out in the cold a little longer.’

So Leamas begins a long and dangerous deception designed to bring him close to Mundt. Much to his surprise, the plan is complicated by his falling in love. Liz Gold, a young librarian and card-carrying Communist, is caught up in the plot despite his best efforts to keep her clear. As a professional, ‘out in the cold’, he can’t regret that. Liz is probably the best thing that has ever happened to Leamas, but in his world your finer feelings have to be put aside:

‘This is a war. It’s graphic and unpleasant because it’s fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it’s nothing, nothing at all beside other wars – the last or the next.’

The Spy is set, obviously, in the early years of the Cold War. In a short but very illuminating Afterword by the author, he explains that he was impelled to write the story by the construction of the Berlin Wall. And in fact the story begins and ends with the Wall.

In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp.

The Cold War ended – and the Wall fell – during my teens. I could have read The Spy when I was younger and it would probably have seemed contemporary and relevant. It’s amazing that the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, and all the grim trappings of that rivalry between East and West seem so distant. A pity we’ve just replaced them with other terrible rivalries…

You expect to get George Smiley in a Le Carré, and he does appear - ‘a small, frog-like figure in glasses, an earnest, worried little man. He looked like a civil servant. Something like that.’ However, he plays a comparatively minor role. More of Smiley when I get around to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Overall, a great slice of espionage with a dollop of double-cross.

Final destination: A keeper

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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12 Responses to John le Carré: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

  1. Sarah says:

    An enjoyable book with a very sad ending. Not one of my favourite Le Carre’s but still an excellent read.

  2. Rich – I’m so glad you reviewed this one. It’s such a well-crafted book I think, and as you say, it was a real game-changer when it comes to espionage stories. I’ll admit I like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so I’m especially looking forward to your review of that.

  3. Judy Buck-Glenn, Philadelphia, PA, USA says:

    I guess I think that if Sherlock Holmes can dash around London in hansom cabs, it should not be quite so difficult to relate to the Berlin Wall as all that. I recall the movie, with Richard Burton, as an especially good adaptation but it was in black and white so maybe that would also seem a bit outre. I think George Smiley is a BIT different in Spy from his characterization in Tinker Tailor–but the Alec Guinness portrayal has so thoroughly invaded my mind I can’t see him otherwise. And apparently John Le Carre had the same experience when he was writing the next book and could only see Smiley as Guinness!

  4. Moira says:

    Nice review. Not long ago I watched the film and then re-read the book – enjoyed both very much.

  5. Good review Rich and I agree, it’s a great novel that still holds up. Have you read CALL FOR THE DEAD, LeCarre’s debut? In many way THE SPY is a sequel to that earlier Smiley book and features many of the same characters and does indeed build on some of its events.

  6. Pingback: Pick of the month: December 2012 | Past Offences

  7. westwoodrich says:

    There’s another early Smiley, A Murder of Quality, reviewed at Only Detect http://onlydetect.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/john-le-carr-a-murder-of-quality-1962/

  8. Pingback: John Le Carré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy | Past Offences

  9. Pingback: Pick of the month: February 2013 | Past Offences

  10. Pingback: Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré | The Game's Afoot

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