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 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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
on 10 July 2014
This is a depressing book. It focuses on Alec Leamas, who runs the British spy network in Berlin till Hans Dieter Mundt effectively wipes it out.
Heading back to London, he's convinced he's going to be sacked till he discovers that Control has one last job to do before he's "brought in from the cold", but will this last "Hail Mary" play work (he has to look like he's ready to defect, defect, spread false information, and get back), or will Leamas die in the process?
Like the 2 other Le Carre books I've read, I found this book depressing. It focuses on what I imagine real "in the field" spy work is like. There's no James Bond here. Instead there are incomplete people with screwed up emotions who have real difficulty finding themselves when they leave "the service." If you can enjoy that sort of thing, you'll like this book. Otherwise, look elsewhere!
on 24 November 2003
John le Carre's 'The Spy Who Came In From The Cold' is a precise, calculating thriller following the exploits of a British spy carrying out his final mission for Her Majesty's Secret Service. Written at the height of the Cold War, the book gives an accurate insight into espionage during the 1950s and 60s.
The story is always interesting and everything le Carre describes is for a purpose, some of which is not immediately apparent at the time but makes sense later. The writer paints the scenes he describes with clarity and distinction, and the characters are very believable. The plot itself is a carefully planned one and allows the reader to constantly come up with ideas about what may be happening before blowing them away when you think you have solved.
The fact that the book was written in the early 1960s means that some sections are quite politically incorrect. However at all times this gives an authentic edge to the story, as it accurately describes people of that day and age. The level of thought and detail le Carre has put into the book is impressive.
Overall, this is one of the best spy novels I have read. Although there is little in the way of Bond-style action, the psychological twists and turns in it makes for a more genuine, tense story. If you are looking for an alternative to contemporary Tom Clancy-style tech-spy-thrillers, le Carre's works are a must-read.
The Spy who came in from the Cold is very much a character driven novel, set in the 60's and telling the story of Alex Leamas, British spy. You'll not find the excessive violence or lengthy fight-scenes so often used to beef-up the shallower end of the genre. Neither will you be dazzled with gadgets or super-computers chewing up gigabytes of surveillance data - this is more like a game of chess that uses human lives as pieces.
Le Carré has a minimalistic prose style that perfectly reflects the cold, emotionless nature of the game he describes. What really came across to me was the terrible loneliness affecting those involved; never knowing who you could trust, what was coincidence and what was orchestrated or where loyalties truly lay. There is no basis for forming realistic relationships on any level and it made me wonder how, in reality, anyone could go about their spying business without quickly descending into a state of total paranoid breakdown.
One other review (I haven't read them all) notes the terrible moral ambiguity present - especially at the climax. In the course of the telling, this novel shreds concepts like good and evil, and finally mocks anyone mad enough to call themselves 'the winners'.
Excellent book - thoroughly recommended.