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

Ends and means…

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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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