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

30 December 2007

Last of the John le Carré novels on my list, and quite possibly the last book review posting of 2007. Many thanks for those of you who’ve followed along thus far — I hope to have more interesting books (and other postings) available in 2008!

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

The story opens on a bleak picture of the state of British intelligence in Germany in the early 1960s, a time of heightened intrigue and conflict between rival security services and the agents who operate in the crevices between East and West. Alec Leamas, former head of British intelligence operations in West Berlin, has seen his entire network of East German agents eliminated in a very short space of time by East Germany’s top spymaster, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Leamas is called home (seemingly in disgrace) to England, and given a new assignment to engineer the downfall of his East Berlin counterpart — the man who had essentially destroyed Leamas’s career. To do so, Leamas must give up his old life and go deep undercover, working his way down in life in a carefully crafted spiral of alcoholism and decline until he can offer himself as a plausible source of information for the East Germans. If he can plant false information that frames Mundt as a British double agent, Mundt will be executed, and Leamas will be allowed to end his working life in espionage and ‘come in from the cold’, or so he hopes. But matters are rarely so simple in the world of Cold War espionage, and Leamas will soon learn that the value of his own life is far more negotiable than he had ever imagined — particularly when the price is being set by his masters at home.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the third book that John le Carré wrote, and many fans of espionage fiction regard it as one of the all-time best espionage novels ever written. Le Carré’s depiction of a down-at-heel, unglamorous, and morally ambigious world of false double agents and planted information was rather revolutionary for its time, not least because it presented Western intelligence services as being no more noble or honourable than their communist counterparts. Some critics initially condemned the novel’s sense of defeatism and its cynical examination of Western values. Yet the very harshness of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold has only contributed to its lasting appeal, where other flashier depictions of high Cold War spy games seem childish or outdated or hopelessly naive from a twenty-first century perspective. The book is a truly fine example of its genre, setting a standard to which other espionage novellists have attempted to aspire ever since it first came out in 1963.


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