#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.

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