#7: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963), by John le Carré

“It gives him a chance to secure his position,” Leamas replied curtly.
“By killing more innocent people? It doesn’t seem to worry you much.”
“Of course it worries me. It makes me sick with shame and anger … But I’ve been brought up differently, Liz; I can’t see it in black and white. People who play this game take risks … It was a foul, foul operation. But it’s paid off, and that’s the only rule.”


I have not read many spy novels, nor do I consider myself a particular fan, but it seems apparent that John le Carré is the acknowledged dean of the genre, and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold his crowning achievement. I’m guessing it’s because the novel strips all that we associate with these stories to its bare essentials. Cut to the bone yet packed with information, it takes a premise that even in 1963 had to have felt like a trope — the grizzled veteran going out for one final adventure — and spins a thriller that’s both tense and ruminative.

After watching his last agent get gunned down while trying to cross the border from East to West Berlin, Alec Leamas is asked to fake his own demise so as to entice the enemy, an East German intelligence leader named Mundt, to ask him to defect. Leamas’ boss, Control, believes Mundt is a double agent working for the British, and by infiltrating the East German intelligence network, Leamas could expose Mundt’s treachery. And thus the elaborate chess match begins.

I think one reason I’ve been resistant to espionage stories is the impression that their whole objective, their reason for being, is to constantly hoodwink the reader, requiring a flow chart to keep track of all the shifting allegiances and 11th-hour revelations (He’s a double agent! No, he’s a triple agent! Turns out he was never an agent at all — he was just a patsy for the real agent!)  I like a good plot twist as much as anyone, but having a series of rugs pulled out from under me is not something I eagerly sign up for.

The British novelist William Boyd addressed these fears in a reminiscence of The Spy Who in 2010:

Unusually for a spy novel, Le Carré’s narrative point of view is omniscient – a dangerous choice, because with authorial omniscience you cannot have your cake and eat it. If you are saying to the reader that you can enter the thoughts of any character and can comment on the action or events in your own voice, then any deliberate withholding of information counts as a black mark. The narrative house-of-cards begins to collapse; the reader’s trust in the author’s control dissipates immediately.

That’s exactly why The Spy Who Came In From the Cold works so well; though the final chapters are filled with the requisite share of crosses and double-crosses, they never feel like le Carré pulling a fast one — the groundwork had been laid right from the first page. Many of the essays and reviews I read of this novel were written by folks on their third or fourth readings, only now picking up on stray clues they missed the first time; if nothing else, The Spy Who is an ingeniously constructed novel.

There’s also, of course, the Bond factor. I saw my share of 007 films growing up, to the point that they’ve become redundant and I have no interest in seeing another. But it’s hard to pick up a novel like this and not feel it’s some kind of corrective to the decadent stylings of Mr. Bond, a way for le Carré, who worked in British intelligence himself, to inject a little reality into the proceedings, because Alec Leamas could not be farther from Ian Fleming’s counterpart.

I should point out that I have only experienced James Bond through the movies, and from what I’ve read, the real difference between le Carré and Fleming isn’t in Bond’s high-flying lifestyle, but in the authors’ worldviews. Hard to imagine anyone in the Bond universe offering up this nihilistic diagnosis:

“I don’t believe in anything, don’t you see — not even destruction or anarchy … I hate it, I hate it all, I’m tired. But it’s the world, it’s mankind that’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.”

In his write-up for the Time 100 list, Lev Grossman called this novel “a sad, sympathetic portrait of a man who has lived by lies and subterfuge for so long, he’s forgotten how to tell the truth.” But Leamas is a step beyond that, really: he’s a man who’s lived by lies and subterfuge for so long, he’s forgotten he ever had a choice.


Here’s the link again to William Boyd’s piece in the Guardian, which you should read in full. It’s filled with terrific insights and practically dares you NOT to read the novel.

Next up: Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant!

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