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David Cornwell aka John le Carré already had two novels under his belt when this one was published, but this is the book that made him as it were, with critical success as well as becoming a bestseller, and a book that many of us have read a few times over the years.

Here we meet Alec Leamus, who losing his best intelligence source from East Germany is called back to the Circus. Whilst there a plot is created to what looks like bring down the serving head of the East German Secret Service. Thus Leamus takes to his new role, whilst all hope that things will go according to plan.

We thus read of what happens next, and as it starts to dawn on Alec, perhaps he is in way above his head with subtleties appearing and other inconsistencies in the plot. Le Carré is clever here in that although this seems to be an easy read there is a lot of complexity to the story, as he reveals only bits of the plan as we go along, leaving us as much in the dark as Leamus. This works very well as it gives us an appreciation and feel for the paranoia and unease that you would expect from such a situation, when you start to discover that what you think is planned isn’t quite the whole story.

Raising the question of whether the good guys should behave in a much better and grander way than the bad guys, this is still something that is discussed continually and no doubt will be for evermore. It is given then a feeling of authenticity and becomes believable as this is a tale not of black and white, but of grey, and let’s face it there are lots of things that fall into a grey murky world all around us.

In all then this is always a joy to read, showing the complexities, morals and ethics that are raised in something like Intelligence work and wars, and the price that has to be paid. This is then quite deep and thoughtful and would probably make a good choice for book groups.
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on 17 October 2014
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is, on the surface, a simple enough spy story. Its set pieces are now so familiar that they're archetypal: an undercover agent, fake passports, defectors, double agents, checkpoints, counter-intelligence and deception. It's a compact and easy read and won't take long. But by the halfway point it has become something more sophisticated, and by the end it will have left a deep impression on you. More is going on here than standard espionage thrills; this book is not meant to thrill or entertain.

le Carré explains in the afterword that he wrote it out of a sense of urgency and moral duty after seeing the Berlin Wall in person and realising what so many well-intentioned ideologies and political theories had finally amounted to. I was reminded of Orwell's most famous political novels, which were similarly compact and direct, angry, made up of essentials and intended to forcefully draw attention to uncomfortable truths about the consequences of political ideologies. Like Orwell, and unlike his peers in the spy genre, le Carré presents an outraged criticism rather than a daring adventure, and victims rather than heroes.

His purpose was to criticize the nature of espionage - the way in which it is conducted, how far it departs from the principles of its societies, and the coldly pragmatic and unethical decisions that are its logical endpoint. The novel is dark and bleak with a steadily growing sense of horror. It's unflinching in its study of the mindsets on both sides of the Cold War, making no attempts to charicature or vilify any of the involved parties: the bizarre mixtures of ideology and pragmatism, of inhumane practices and gentlemanly sentiments, of sociopathic manipulation and lingering honour that existed on both sides of the conflict are studied in knowing detail.

le Carré creates the bare minimum of characters needed to tell his story and then richly explores every nuance and contradiction of their natures. They are given a rare depth and realism through generous dialogue and brilliantly astute characterization, and feel wholly human. Their vain struggles to comprehend and outwit systems whose explicit purpose was to never be comprehended or outwitted by anybody, not even their own agents, is disheartening; their anguish and frustration as they attempt to do the right thing in situations where the only currency is human suffering and the only choices left betrayals, even more so.

le Carré gives us no enemy, no bad guy, to draw a moral compass from; as in real life, and especially in the Cold War, there are only people on both sides faithfully following their principles and methods, doing what it seems must be done, and realising too late that the results are terrible. The awful situations created and choices made are presented as a problem with no solution, a Pyrrhic battle in which human lives are sacrificed and traded and nothing of proportionate value is recovered by anyone - as in Orwell's 1984, human suffering is demanded by calculating systems of control, and nobody is empowered to prevent it.

On account of all that, it should be an alienating read. The greatest accomplishment here, though, the saving grace, is how sympathetically le Carré humanizes the protagonist, Alec Lemas, effortlessly making us identify with a man other writers would mystify or glorify as a tough and hardened professional. He recognises that every tough and hardened operative is, at base, just a normal person whose training or particular psychological quirks suit him well to the work of espionage; that, when the work is done and the consequences dealt out, it's a human being who must cope with them.

Several reviewers contrast him with Ian Fleming's Bond, and rightly so; where James Bond is a steeled, wry hero-figure who thrives on the challenges and triumphs of his experiences, Alec Lemas is a terribly relatable ordinary man with finite endurance, gradually worn down by years of traumatic experiences and unsavoury work, pushed to the edge of his emotional endurance by the ethical contradictions of his duties. Through him, we gradually see how hopeless and expendable individuals are in the process of espionage, how amoral and inhuman a process it is. There's a dark, preoccupying unresolved question at the heart of the story that will have you rereading it, struggling, as Lemas does, to find an answer: how do intelligent, earnest, well-intentioned men end up doing such brutal things?
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 8 June 2017
A wonderful John le Carre novel. I'm into crime and spy genres so when I finished the latest Peter James a friend suggest this classic John le Carre tale and I wasn't disappointed. It does have a complex plot as pointed out in other reviews but its written in such a gripping and easy to follow way that you don't find yourself getting so confused you give up. Instead, it keeps you reading along with the fast pace of the story, then before you know it its over and your left wanting more. I certainly look forward to reading more of his books.

Penguin has also done a brilliant job with the modern design of the cover.
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on 23 March 2017
I moved onto this after enjoying The Night Manager even more than the BBC's superb adaptation of it. I had read that "... Cold" was in Le Carre's top three so my expectations were high. Utterly surpassed on reading. The final 20% is simply thrilling. Can't recommend highly enough.
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on 16 March 2017
Classic Le Carre plot, complex but so well written it is easy to follow. Characters well developed and easy to relate to. Brushes with some of the ethical issues around espionage and the limits of behaviour that are reasonable for a nation state.
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on 17 April 2017
Brilliantly complicated but utterly compelling. Who cares if a character is hard to like when the writing's this good? Not me.
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on 8 June 2017
We read this in our book group and discussion between ourselves revealed the depth and moral dilemma. Worth a second read
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on 28 March 2017
I know its been said by others about many, but I found this book a real page turner. Just top draw Mr le carre
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on 26 June 2017
Excellent book by a really intelligent Author, well worth a read.
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on 17 June 2017
I'm 73 years old. About time that I read this book. Great story, beautifully told. If you're into Jonn le Carré do read 'The Pigeon Tunnel'.
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