Alec Leamas is tired. It’s the 1960s, he’s been out in the cold for years, spying in Berlin for his British masters, and has seen too many good agents murdered for their troubles. Now Control wants to bring him in at last – but only after one final assignment. He must travel deep into the heart of Communist Germany and betray his country, a job that he will do with his usual cynical professionalism. But when George Smiley tries to help a young woman Leamas has befriended, Leamas’ mission may prove to be the worst thing he could ever have done. – Online book description
When one says the words, spy novel, the first name that probably comes to mind is Bond, James Bond. Or you might think of Jason Bourne, a character invented by Tom Clancy, or perhaps Chuck Bartowski. But possibly none of these characters would have been around today if not for John le Carré, for even though most of Ian Fleming’s Bond-novels predate it, Le Carré’s 1963-novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, is widely accepted as the work which defined the genre.
Interestingly, Le Carré’s novel is nothing like the other works one commonly finds in the genre. There are no gadgets, car chases, amphibious vehicles or supercomputers. There’s one fight scene, but it happens in total darkness, so you can’t see it very well ( 😉 ), and while there is some romance it’s not nearly as…romantic as with 007, for example.
No, most of this novel consists of two men sitting in a room or walking in the countryside talking. Yet this does not make for a boring read, but one cannot help but be drawn into the intrigue as a man pretends to betray his country even while it seems that his country is betraying him.
I think part of the success of the novel is the high degree of realism. This is how espionage really works. It’s talking, and scheming, and misinformation. Only very seldom is it jumping from helicopter and running gun battles. Le Carré knows this, for he used to do it himself, and it shows in the novel.
The other thing that sets this novel apart, as every discussion I’ve seen on it points out, is that it was the first work in the midst of the Cold War era that truly explored the morality behind espionage. I’ll have to read the novel again to really delve into that particular aspect, but I know it’s there – one gets to a point where one can hardly tell anymore who the good guys are and who the bad, not a conundrum one has to face with modern spy-stories.
Most of the novel is told from Alec Leamas’s perspective. The character is so well written that at times one forgets he’s only pretending to betray his country. Only in moments that he is alone does his true self show through, but just for a moment, because this spy is so dedicated to his ruse that he convinces even himself that it is real. Only at the very last does he become himself again.
I must admit I didn’t much like the ending, but at the same time I know it was the right ending – this story just couldn’t end any other way (though to find out how it ended you’ll have to read it yourself).
For me this novel was a nice change of pace from the type of stuff I usually read and, while Le Carré is unlikely to be added to my list of favourite authors, I will be returning for more of his novels when the mood strikes me.