on 20 February 2014
There are two great British spy fiction novels I count as the best: Ian Fleming's From Russia with Love and Desmond Cory's Dead Man Falling. Each are classics in their own right, and one more I would add to the list is John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
It's my favourite espionage thriller from John le Carre and also a fine example of how to pull off a multitude of double crosses, keeping the reader often quite perplexed. Unlike Fleming's novels there is no pretence of glamour, and like Cory, there is little righteousness in the spying game.
Le Carre writes very starkly at times in this novel, adding a certain harshness that mirrors the ethical ambiguity at the heart of the book.
This is a world away from the girls, gadgets, and gorgeous locations of Flemings books, yet it is better off for it. It is extremely well thought out and the story works well. I found it a very satisfying read.
on 16 November 2011
Some people may regard this book as a modern classic. It is certainly the book which brought John le Carre to the fore.
Before I continue, I'd like to give you a warning. Please skip the Introduction by William Blake, as it will completely wreck the pleasure that you should get from the story as it reveals all, including the ending. You can go back to read the Introduction.
I well remember the first time that I read this book. I was about fifteen and I was an officer cadet at a Naval school where we could assemble in the mess hall every Saturday evening to watch a big screen feature film. I saw The Spy who came in from the Cold with Richard Burton was on the "Coming Soon" list. I borrowed the book from the school library and read it before I watched the film. I enjoyed both immensely, despite the relatively small differences in the story lines.
Revisiting the book a few decades on has been equally enjoyable experience. As you would expect, my life since those days has given me a different viewpoint, particularly as I served on the IGB (Inner German Border) during my Army days, and spent a lot of time with members of families who had spent years of forced separation from their close relatives. It was so sad.
This book is about the duplicitous games that spies play and how these affect the lives of others. There are lots of descriptions of the plot amongst the hundreds of online reviews, so I am not going to repeat that for you. What I would like to say is that this is a fast-paced story of Cold War espionage which draws you in. Every word and action of every character has to be carefully considered by that person, as any slip could place them in serious danger. That makes the story exciting.
This is one of those books which you simply must place on your have-to-read-before-I-die bookshelf.
on 18 September 2009
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.
Whilst i respect those reviewers who have read the original book, and therefore can meaningfully talk about the adaptation's faithfulness, I can only review this audio adaptation as a piece of stand-alone radio drama, with no idea of how accurate the mood or characterisations are.
As a dark, bleak drama set in the period of the Cold War, it is infinitely more compelling than the utterly unreal seeming James Bond version of espionage.
Production values are great, there is brilliant use of sound effects and music to set scenes and indicate the passage of time and place.
Brian Cox as Alex Leamas, the world-weary, bruised and complex intelligence officer and Ruth Gemmell as Liz, the young British CP member and Leamas' girlfriend are both superb. Cox particularly holds the whole piece together.
Like another reviewer however, I'm a little surprised that the wonderful Simon Russell Beale, as Smiley, received star billing. Maybe Smiley has a more central role in the other le Carre radio adaptations, but in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold he occupies about 2 minutes of 3 hours air time. So I'm also a little surprised at reviews which single him out for praise! as you have to listen very very hard to identify he has appeared in a scene or 3! He's talked ABOUT all the time, but isn't really in the action of this one at all!!! The real star is Cox; without his weighty performance this could garner no real accolades.
I couldn't go the whole 5 stars as there are some pretty wincing attempts as German accents, with the accent playing the actors, rather than the actors playing the characters.
Afraid without Cox I'd have had to stop listening once the action shifted to Berlin, as the cod accents had me gritting my teeth and wincing!!!
Cox, Gemmell, a classy script, excellent music and the fine skills of the producer/director and recording engineers make this a tight and absorbing piece
I've always enjoyed the BBC's crime and thriller dramas, but this was my first introduction to le Carre. This is a new dramatisation, first broadcast early this year.
Not being previously familiar with the novel, I found this a little hard to get on with at first. The narrative is quite complex, and there isn't a lot of voiceover narration to help out. It doesn't help that some of the voices are quite similar, so following the switches between characters is tricky at first. Also, of course, this is a cold-war drama that begins around the time of the building of the Berlin Wall. The dramatisation seems to assume a reasonable level of familiarity with the political context of the time.
These reservations aside, the CD is well worth persevering with. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes interesting and engaging. The acting is generally good - though, as with many BBC dramas, some of the accents are somewhat less than convincing. Ruth Gemmell as Liz Gold is particularly good.
Overall, this is a good dramatisation that repays perseverance. I suspect that people who are already familiar with the story might find it easier to engage with on first listening.
on 27 July 2014
`I mean, you've got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal. I would say that since the war, our methods - ours and those of the opposition - have become much the same. I mean, you can't be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government's policy is benevolent, can you now?' He laughed quietly to himself. `That would never do.''
Imagine the following. A man is lashed to a chair, being tortured. His nails are being extracted from fingers on both hands. Working one hand is a fellow from the east, pulling nails for the greater good of the workers and the revolution. At the other hand is a chap from the west, pulling nails for freedom and democracy.
Where is the morality to be found?
If the morality is not in the action, then anything is permissible for the cause; if it is in the action, then how can we say we are the good guys?
I believe that if an objective morality exists then it exists in the cause, not the action. How could it be otherwise? The evil in the world - indeed, `the problem of evil' - is argued away by some by claiming that God might have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil to exist in the world. Such a position is `thin' - as thin as an honest alibi as Chandler might have it - but it's better than nothing.
Funny to read a book in which the British - in this case the British Secret Service - are just as wicked and pitiless as the enemy. One might be able to derive a certain pride from this. It's good to think of the chaps in the shadows having the measure of the enemy and doing what is necessary in the battle to allow `us' to `sleep peacefully in our beds' - or whatever platitudinous drivel happens to be current linguistic currency. But is there a limit to what can be done to the enemy? Le Carre doesn't answer this, but he does pose the question.
So, what do the British do in this marvellous novel?
We keep a sadistic Nazi in position because although we know he's a torturer and murderer, he's also our man in East Berlin, and - because he's our Joe - we'll look the other way for the sake of the product.
While we're at it, we target a good, loyal and thoroughly decent fellow - though suspicious of our Joe - and frame him with an elaborate plot which will end with this innocent man's murder. One must protect one's assets, old-boy.
To bring this about, we'll use a British girl - just a ditzy librarian, full of innocent ideology - and weave her into the scheme before slapping her onto the table as our ace-card. Alas, we can't have this poor creature running about the place and spilling her guts to anyone who'll listen, so we'll do a deal with the guards on the eastern side of the wall. We'll let our man get up and over, but we'll shoot the British girl to keep her quiet, and she can spill her guts while she fades away.
Splendid plan - capital sport! Pass the brandy, old-man.
Isn't it a bit rum to ship a British girl over the GDR on a pretext, knowing full-well we're planning to have her killed? Not at all, she's a card-carrying party member, her choice, dear boy.
The cynicism in this book is breathtaking. The ruthlessness is not the point. As Auden points out:
I and the public know
What all school children learn
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return
There probably is some psychological truth to that, though the pinstripes in this novel do more besides.
I feel like a needed a thorough detoxification after reading this one.
on 28 April 2003
"The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" is, without doubt, the classic Cold War thriller. It is the novel by which others of the genre have to be judged. Almost all will be found wanting.
For this work Le Carre's prose is lean with not a word wasted. Indeed, some readers may find the style too austere. However, to my mind, it captures the mood of the time. There is not an ounce of fat and every word counts.
The problem which the young reader may encounter (i.e. anybody born after, say, 1985) is that the story is set in a world far removed from today. The knowledge that Le Carre would have assumed even the casual reader had is now lacking. A little bit of background research may be required so that the concepts of "Democratic Germany" and "The Party" can be appreciated.
Nevertheless, this is an excellent introduction to both Le Carre and also the fascinating Cold War era.
on 19 October 2009
Having read, and in many cases re-read, everything le Carre has written, including the disappointing and excessively mannered recent work, this is the book I keep coming back to. In it le Carre encapsulated everything he wanted to say about the dirty world of espionage, its appalling morality and its betrayal of essentially decent people in pursuit of dubious goals. Even the best of his other novels only offers variations on this theme. Beautifully convoluted yet precise, the plot has the elegance and precision of a grandmaster's chess game.
Attempting to re-create such a famous and iconic piece of British literetaure is always going to be difficult. Fortunately, this BBC production does it just about as well as can be hoped for.
For anyone not familiar, at least in passing, with "The spy who came in from the cold", it is an engrossing story of Cold War espionage, spies and double agents. The plot is centred on a British spy's (Leamas) last mission and is set in Berlin and London. The mission is to try and implicate a high-ranking German spy (Mundt) as a British double-agent, and therefore have him killed by his own people.
The plotting is intricate and edgy, seething with the paranoia and distrust so prevalent during this period of history. And yet, the story has aged very well and hardly appears dated at all. The story will not appeal to those seeking a thrill-a-minute, explosion and gadget-fest a la Tom Clancy, et al, but it is a superlative psychological thriller which raised the bar for the genre of spy novels, against which all others are still judged.
For me, it's just so much more real than the superficial James Bond idea of spy thrillers. There are no throwaway daliances with random women. The love interest in the book is an emotional one. It is visceral and highlights the conflict between duty to one's country and desire of one's own.
The book had a huge impact at the time of it's release, mainly due to Le Carre's portrayal of the espionage business in all it's dirty detail, and also for his refusal to portray the English as "good" and the Germans as "bad". Le Carre is impartial in his descriptions of both sides - a radical departure for the time away from the Nationalistic novels such as the James Bond series.
The BBC audio book manages to catch all of this in an enthralling production, with brilliant performaces from it's two leads (Simon Russell Beale & Brian Cox). This is an edge of the seat experience for the discerning listener.
on 19 March 2004
This book has a ring of authenticity about it. The seedier side of London and Berlin is beautifully described. There are no Bond-like gadgets, car chases or roof-top pursuits, yet I found this to be one of the best novels of the genre I have ever read; more gripping, and in some places faster-paced, than a lot of action-based thrillers. The plot is revealed rather like an onion - sections of skin peeled back to reveal another and yet another. The character of Alec Leamas remains elusive throughout and at the end I felt I still didn't know him; he is secretive, like the Service he works for. Despite this I never felt cheated or disappointed. This is a great read, indeed nothing less than a modern classic.