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

Ends and means…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Alec Leamas is the head of the West German office of the British Secret Service – the time is the early 1960s, just after the building of the Berlin Wall. His main adversary, Hans-Dieter Mundt, has been successfully eliminating all of Leamas’ agents one by one, and Leamas has just witnessed the death of the last double-agent he had in East Berlin. Called home, Leamas expects he will be retired, but he is asked to stay “out in the cold” for one last operation – to take part in an elaborate sting to infiltrate the East German set-up and bring down Mundt. But first he must establish a convincing cover story for himself, one that will make the East Germans believe that he is willing to betray his country…

This is my first le Carré novel, although his books have been adapted so often and he’s been so influential on the genre I felt I had a good idea of what to expect – a bleak, cold portrayal of the work of spies far removed from the glamour of James Bond and his like. And that’s exactly what I got in this slow-burn but engrossing thriller. Le Carré shows a moral equivalence between the agents on both sides of the wall rather than the good Brits/evil enemies portrayal that was more standard in fiction before his time. Both sides are shown as using methods that are murky at best and the question that underpins it is the old one of whether the ends justify the means.

To point this up, le Carré introduces an innocent into the story – Liz Gold, a woman with whom Leamas has an affair while building up his false story. She’s an idealist – a communist at a time when the Communist Party in Britain is so minor and insignificant that it’s more like a social club than a revolutionary political force. As the story progresses, she will have to face the reality of communism under a totalitarian government, and Leamas will have to face the consequences of having accidentally put her in a position of great danger. His world weary cynicism contrasts with her naive belief in humankind. Her love for Leamas and faith in him will force him to reconsider the methods and morality of the organisation of which he has been a part for so long.

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The writing style is in line with the character of Leamas – unemotional and somewhat cynical. It takes a long time to work out quite what’s going on, not just for the reader but for the characters too, since it’s full of bluff and double-bluff. There’s a distinction between characters who are doing what they’re doing out of ideological conviction and those who are simply out for power and advancement, but one senses that eventually the believers will in turn become the old cynics – it’s the job that does it to them in the end. This causes you to realise that once upon a time Leamas too was probably an idealist, making him more sympathetic than he first appears. We catch a glimpse too of how some join not through patriotism or belief, but because the job allows them to exercise a natural cruelty. And finally, we see how those at the top see agents as pawns on a chessboard, valuable up to a point, but sometimes worth sacrificing in the pursuit of victory.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war.

It’s a bleak tale and a complex one that requires concentration to follow the twisting maze of plot. Le Carré trusts his readers to read between the lines, in terms both of the action and of the motivations of the characters, and ultimately that’s what makes it so satisfying. There’s enough ambiguity in it for each reader to decide for herself exactly what the ending tells us, but there are also clues for those who were paying attention. For those of us who might have missed one or two(!), my Penguin Modern Classics edition has a short but insightful introduction from William Boyd, no slouch himself when it comes to espionage fiction, in which he discusses the impact of the book and his own interpretation of the underlying meanings. This intro must be read as an afterword since it gives away the ending, but it does have a warning to that effect.

John Le Carre
Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

It’s a little more bleak than my taste usually runs to and it took me a bit of time to feel involved in the story, but by the end I was totally absorbed and emotionally hooked. The writing is excellent and le Carré remains totally in control of the complexities of the plotting at all times. There’s an almost noir feeling to it, certainly dark grey anyway, and a kind of despairing cynicism of tone, but there are also small shafts of light and the occasional unexpected humanity that remind us that these people do what they do so that we can live as we choose to live. But at what cost to themselves and, ultimately, to us? Thought-provoking, intelligent and engrossing – no wonder it’s considered a major classic of the genre.

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57 thoughts on “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré

  1. I listened to this as an audiobook a couple of years ago and ended up being late to an evening with friends (I really hate being late!) because I absolutely had to know how it finished. The thing that I remember most clearly is exactly what you picked up on here – the contrast between bleak cynicism and hopeful idealism that runs through the whole novel. The ending really stayed with me for a long time, as well.

    • Yes, I ended up reading the last half in one big chunk too because I had to know! I always like when bleak books give a bit of room for us to see that there are other sides to life, otherwise they just feel too dark to me. I loved that it ended the way it did – kinda abruptly, without chapters of what happened afterwards. It leaves it up to the reader to decide about the rights and wrongs of the whole thing…

    • I loved that about it too, and although it’s a bit like a maze he keeps such tight control of the plotting you never end up feeling hopelessly lost. A classic, for sure!

    • I don’t know why I’ve never read him before, but I’ll certainly be reading more now. He’s one of those writers who has really set the standard for the genre he writes in…

  2. I like ’em bleak – well, at least when it comes to spy novels. Otherwise they can be a bit too James Bondish and Lone Ranger saving the world. This one is thoughtful and shows you that spying is not triumphalist at all.

    • I quite enjoy the hero saving the world type of book as a light entertainment, but this feels much more real and credible. I liked the way he showed how easily idealism can be corrupted, either into evil or cynicism, though it’s a depressing thought…

    • Thank you! I wasn’t at all sure if I’d like him which is why I’ve put him off for so long, but I really found this impressive. And enjoyable, in a bleak kind of way…

  3. Like you previously I haven’t sampled Le Carré at all though I know I should, for his writing and for his ideas. The greyness you mention is my remembrance of the early sixties, modulated through black and white TV screens, and of course the term Cold War invites bleak wintry images of monochrome walls, streets and postwar ruins. My wife has a selection of Le Carré on her shelves: I really will get round to them some time.

    • Yes, I felt while I was reading this that any adaptation should be done in black and white, and then I wondered how much our visualisation of that time arises out of these books – he’s so clearly set the tone and standard for so much of the Cold War espionage fiction in both books and films that have come since. I wasn’t at all sure I’d like this, but I found it very impressive, and even enjoyable in a bleak kind of way…

  4. I think one of le Carré’s strengths is the way he develops his characters, FictionFan. They are much more complex than you think at first, and I think that takes talent. Just when you think you know them….you find there’s more to them than you thought. Plenty of espionage novelists don’t delve that deeply, and I think that’s one thing that sets these novels apart.

    • Yes. I thought Leamas especially was brilliantly portrayed, and all show – no tell at all. He’s superficially unsympathetic, but you can’t help beginning to realise how much of himself he’s sacrificed to a thankless job. And the girl is great too – that naïve idealism! Very impressive, and one that left me thinking long after the last page had been turned…

  5. This was my first ever foray into the world of Adult Fiction many many years ago when my local librarian pressed it into my hands and told me I’d love it. And I did – and have loved Le Carre ever since. His most recent book Legacy of Spies brought lots of threads from previous books together and it prompted me to re-read Spy all over again for the umpteenth time – and thought it was as good and clever and thought provoking as it was when I first read some some forty plus years ago. Glad you liked it!

    • Isn’t it great when a librarian or teacher does that? I suspect I probably didn’t read him years ago because he was seen as a “men’s” writer back in the day, but thankfully those rules are outdated now. I was looking at reviews for Legacy of Spies but although some reviewers were saying it works as a standalone, I decided it would be better to read some of the earlier ones first, since it seems to refer to them. So I think I’ll head for the early Smiley novels next… 😀

      • I think that you’d enjoy Legacy much more if you know the Smiley/Circus novels because there are parts of it where it’s joining up some of the threads from those early novels. And they’re great books anyway!

  6. I’ve not read any Le Carré and I’m just not sure I want to, despite your positive review. I’m not a great fan of spy stories. Would you believe I’ve never watched a Bond film all the way through? (though I’ll watch the opening scene of Live or Let Die any time I catch it on the TV and can sing many of the theme songs!)

    • Ha – I’ve never made it through a Bond film either, though I feel that in theory I should love them. This is much bleaker, but also much more thought-provoking. I do like some espionage fiction, but it’s not my favourite genre unless it’s very well done… which this is!

  7. I’ve been putting this off, then trying and stalling out, for years. I’ve a low pain threshold when it comes to being confused by intricate plotting in mystery or detective fiction–more a Chandler fan than a Le Carre–but I’m keen to try again. Thanks for the nudge to try it again.

    • I’ve been avoiding him for years, assuming he’d be way too bleak and cynical for me, and to a degree he was. But the quality of the writing and the characterisation made it a great read anyway. It must have taken me a good half of the book to feel really engrossed, though – the complexity of the plotting had me feeling a bit lost for quite a while. But he does it masterfully and eventually – I wouldn’t say it all becomes clear exactly – but the murkiness becomes the point. I hope you find it works for you too!

  8. I’m afraid I’ve never read any Le Caré, as I’m not especially drawn towards spy fiction, but I might give this a go at some point to try something different.

    • This was my first le Carré and I really wasn’t sure I’d like it. But I see now how influential he’s been not just on the genre but maybe on how we tend to think of the Cold War time in general. I found it took me quite a long time to get into, but once I did I was totally absorbed in how brilliantly he handles the complex plotting…

  9. This sounds excellent. I’ve only read one le Carre – A Perfect Spy – and this sounds similar in terms of themes, murkiness and intelligent writing. This will be my next le Carre read 🙂

    • I’ve never been sure whether I’d like him which is why it’s taken me so long to give him a try, but I found this very impressive and you can really see his influence on all the spy fiction that’s followed. I think I’ll go for the Smiley books next… 😀

    • I’ve just started reading book 18! *smug face* I’ve been avoiding him for years because I suspected he’d be too bleak for me. But the writing and characterisation more than makes up for that…

  10. I’ve not read any of his, though I know he’s considered excellent by others. Spy novels just aren’t really my thing, I guess. Still, you’ve written a convincing review, so I might have to give him a try — maybe during the long, winter months, when there aren’t so many outside distractions, ha!

    • I’m not a big fan of spy fiction either, so I understand. But this isn’t all full of action and blowing things up – it’s much more thoughtful, and about the characters far more than the action. If you do ever decide to give it a try, I hope you enjoy it!

  11. This is such an iconic title, so when I spotted your review, I thought: I have read this! But the truth is I haven’t. In fact, I doubt, I have read any le Carre at all. It sounds good though, and if I ever get to le Carre, this will be my first choice. Excellent review!

    • That happens to me a lot with classics. I think they become such a part of the general consciousness that it feels like we know them even when we don’t. And this one has clearly been so influential on later books and films about the Cold War that it does have a kind of familiar feeling about it. If you do ever get around to it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 😀

  12. I quite simply must read this! Glorious review, my friend. I am trying to remember – it seems like a read another author earlier this year who was compared to this one…I can’t place who it was. No matter because this sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

    • Thank you! 😀 Hmm… can’t think of one I remember you reviewing recently, but le Carré has been so influential on the genre I suspect lots of people could be compared to him. If you do get a chance to read this one, I hope you enjoy it!

  13. I appreciate that he doesn’t make one side out to be good and the other bad-it’s all based on perspective obviously, and things are never black and white, especially when it comes to spies! I’ve never read him before, but I wonder if he’s just too much of a slow burn for me? Would I just get bored?

    • Yes, I liked that aspect too – so much more realistic than the goodie/baddie thing. It’s not a hugely long book so although I did find the first half quite slow burn it still didn’t take long to get through it, and by mid-way it had grabbed me…

  14. I’ve never read Le Carre and mostly associate him with the type of books my dad would read but this sounds rather appealing. I didn’t realize it came out in the 1960s; for some reason I thought it was published in the 80s and was going to protest that it was too recent to be a classic!

    • Yes, I think that’s why I’ve never read him before – he was definitely seen as a “man’s writer” back in the day. But happily I lived long enough for those stereotypes to disappear! 😉 Haha – my cut-off is 1965. I kinda feel that if I was old enough to read a book when it was first released it can’t possibly be a classic so that rules out anything from about 1970 on… 😀

  15. Great review! I haven’t read any le Carre yet, but he’s been on my list to read for quite awhile now! I’m not a big fan of spy books or movies, but I want to try reading le Carre since so many love his work and his books always sound so interesting. I’m glad that you liked this one, and that quote you highlighted is so atmospheric!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, he’s been so influential on spy fiction both on books and film – that’s why I wanted to read him too. His language is kinda understated but he’s great at creating visual images of both the people and the settings. If you do get to him, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 😀

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