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

Book #430

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


Back in October 2012 I reviewed the wonderful Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and then this past April I reviewed the final ‘Karla’ novel, Smiley’s People.  It has been a consistent pleasure reading Mr le Carré’s work and his novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is absolutely no different.  Sadly for me, it is the last of his novels on the list.

Written right at a time of heightened tension in the Cold War, and when the Berlin Wall went up, we are introduced to the British Station Head in Berlin – Alec Leamas.

Leamas is having all sorts of issues with his East German counterparts in the Abteilung.  His opposite number, Hans-Dieter Mundt is slowly weeding out Leamas’ agents.  And by weeding out, I mean killing.  The novel starts with the last, and most significant of Leamas’ double agents trying to cross from East Berlin to the West as his network is compromised.

Karl Riemeck almost makes it across, but is shot at the last moment by the Vopos and Leamas, with no agents left, returns to London in disgrace and expects to be put out to pasture with a desk job.

Le Carré’s work carries us along with Leamas as he faces his disgrace and downward spiral, and his one final job before ‘coming in from the cold’.  His job is to help Control, and the Circus, bring down Hans-Dieter Mundt.  Thereby removing a major threat, and in Leamas’ case, avenging the losses of his agents.

The writing and characterisation is pithy, clear and believable.  At a little over 200 pages of very easy reading, this is a nice book to work through on a wet weekend.  It takes you back to the heart of Cold War Europe and right in to the West vs East German situation.  It’s realism and portrayal of the true behaviour of the British Secret Service was shocking to the public at the time of publication.  The Secret Service had it’s glamour boy in James Bond, Le Carré shows the other side – the burnt out agent, the nasty, dirty means used to gain the ends and the fact that there is very little difference in operating methods between spy services looking after their national security.

He was mad, you see. Le Carré.  He says so in the 1989 Foreword to my edition.

Staring at the Wall was like staring at frustration itself, and it touched an anger in me that found its way into the book.  In interviews at the time, I am sure, I said none of this.  Perhaps I was still too much the spy, or perhaps I didn’t know myself well enough to understand that, by telling an ingenious tale, I was making some kind of bitter order out of my own chaos.
Certainly I never wrote this way again, and for a while the smart thing to say of me was that I was a one-book man, that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was a grand fluke, and all the rest was aftercare.

This book is about morality.  What we will and won’t do for the ‘greater’ cause.  Leamas rants about this towards the end of the story.

That’s easy enough to understand, isn’t it?  Leninism – the expediency of temporary alliances.  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?

It is very cleverly constructed, even when you eventually have enough clues to work out the last part of the plot, and is uncompromising in its closure.  Sadly, too much more information from me and it wouldn’t be much of a thriller for a new reader.
This too shall eventually have a place on my bookshelf.  I can’t give higher praise than a spot on my shelf.

Happy reading everyone.


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