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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The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Britannia rules the waves?

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Our narrator, Carruthers, finds himself having to stay on at his job in the Foreign Office while all his fashionable friends depart for country house parties, apparently managing to cope with his absence with less difficulty than he’d have liked. Released at last for his annual holiday, he finds himself with nowhere in particular to go, so when an old friend writes inviting him to spend some time on his yacht duck-shooting in the Baltic, he decides to take him up on the offer. He’s expecting a well-appointed leisure yacht complete with crew, so is taken aback to discover that the Dulcibella is tiny, strictly functional and manned only by his friend, Davies. Throwing off his initial grumpiness, Carruthers settles in to learn the art of sailing under Davies’ expert tutelage. But he soon discovers that Davies has an ulterior motive for wanting him there – Davies suspects that there’s some kind of German plot being developed along the Baltic coastline, and wants Carruthers to help him investigate…

The beginning of the book is a lot of fun, filled with self-deprecating humour as Carruthers first realises that his fashionable world can survive quite happily without him and then discovers that, rather than swanning about on a nice, clean deck in his natty sailing outfit, he’s expected to share a tiny cabin with Davies, eat off a paraffin stove, and work for his passage. He’s very likeable – the archetypal patriotic gentlemanly hero beloved of English fiction of that era. (And still beloved by this Scot today, I freely admit.) Davies is a little rougher around the edges, but is also entirely decent and honourable.

When they start to sail, the book doesn’t stint on nautical facts and terminology. My Oxford World’s Classics edition contains a glossary of terms as well as the usual informative introduction and notes, which tell a bit about Childers’ life – an intriguing story on its own account – and the literary and historical background to the book. There are also charts! Sea charts! And charts of the various coastlines. I know some people will find it a little odd, but I can’t resist a chart, map or plan in a book, so to have an abundance of them added immensely to the fun.

A sort of buoyant fatalism possessed me as I finished my notes and pored over the stove. It upheld me, too, when I went on deck and watched the ‘pretty beat’, whose prettiness was mainly due to the crowd of fog-bound shipping — steamers, smacks, and sailing-vessels — now once more on the move in the confined fairway of the fiord, their baleful eyes of red, green, or yellow, opening and shutting, brightening and fading; while shore-lights and anchor-lights added to my bewilderment, and a throbbing of screws filled the air like the distant roar of London streets. In fact, every time we spun round for our dart across the fiord I felt like a rustic matron gathering her skirts for the transit of the Strand on a busy night. Davies, however, was the street arab who zigzags under the horses’ feet unscathed; and all the time he discoursed placidly on the simplicity and safety of night-sailing if only you are careful, obeying rules, and burnt good lights. As we were nearing the hot glow in the sky that denoted Kiel we passed a huge scintillating bulk moored in mid-stream. ‘Warships,’ he murmured, ecstatically.

The story gradually takes on a more serious tone, though, once Davies reveals his suspicions. The book was first published in 1903, and I thought it casts a fascinating light on the attitudes of the British ruling classes to their counterparts in Germany at that point in time. Were we more European then than now? Perhaps. Our public service was populated with the younger sons of the lower aristocracy, all public school* educated and many of them well-travelled in Europe and passably fluent in more than one language. Our Royals across Europe were all related to each other, and I imagine the same was probably true of a lot of the aristocracy. Today Germany is our friend; in my childhood, it was still perceived as our enemy; back at the time of this book, there’s a perception of it as being a kind of family member, a cousin perhaps. Not altogether surprising, given that our Royal Family is German, as was Queen Victoria’s beloved Albert (and hence all their thousands of offspring).

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But Germany was growing and becoming more powerful at this time, and while Carruthers and Davies feel goodwill towards it and admire all the Kaiser is doing to advance his country, they also see it as a potential opponent in the future. There’s an odd sporting edge to this – they rather look forward to meeting Germany in war one day, as if it were some form of jousting contest fought for honour and glory. (One can’t help but hope neither of them were in Passchendaele or the Somme twelve or thirteen years later.)

The emphasis of the book is on the growth of Germany as a naval power, and it becomes ever clearer that Childers’ real purpose in writing it was to send a warning to the powers-that-be in Britain that we shouldn’t take our naval supremacy for granted, especially in the North Sea. Unfortunately, as the rather polemical message grows stronger, the entertainment side of it gets somewhat sidelined, and I didn’t enjoy the second half quite as much as the first. Childers goes into far more detail on the potential naval threat and how Germany might use this bit of coastline to launch a future attack on Britain than makes for a good adventure story – at points it feels more like a report to the Foreign Office. And, since his purpose was to warn of a growing threat, it couldn’t have the kind of enemies-destroyed-rip-roaring-success-hurrah-for-good-old-England ending that this type of novel normally goes for.

Erskine Childers and his wife Molly sailing in the Baltic in 1910

However, there is plenty of adventure along the way, danger and derring-do, and a rather understated (and unnecessary) romance element, which the introduction informs me was more or less forced on Childers by his publishers. All-in-all, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Carruthers’ development from fashionable young man-about-town to patriotic amateur spy, and the intriguing look at the British-German relationship of the time more than made up for the shortcomings of the adventure story in the second half. This one undoubtedly deserves it status as a classic of espionage fiction.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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*Public school means posh private school in Britain, just to be confusing.