The Spy who Came in from the Cold is the story of Alec Leamas, a fictional British spy, set towards the end of his career. The setting is the early 1960s, largely in London, Berlin and East Germany (the GDR).
The writing is of high standard, almost Homeric in nature. It has a sparse, exact quality that seems far from the style of creative writing courses. The evocation of the 1960s Cold War world is well done. Le Carre's focus has always been on the human aspects of the spy game, so fans of James Bond and Jason Bourne may be disappointed. The emotions and travails that spies must suffer are represented here: the difficulties of forming and maintaining relationships and of having to live multiple realities are described in this work.
Those who like moral certainties and absolute good and bad guys in their spy stories may also be disappointed. This was the nature of the Cold War and thus of the spy games that NATO and the Warsaw Pact played. Elizabeth is something of an idealistic member of the Communist party in Britain, who then confronts the reality of Communism in East Germany, and then to great tragedy. The main protagonist, Leamas, will eventually realise the horrific, amoral nature of the game he is in.
This is not a book about heroic spies with a happy, world-saving end, but it is a brilliant read, and signalled the beginning of Le Carre's very successful career. I greatly recommend it.