The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré
Posted: 19 Feb 2015
I came to this novel with, I suppose, a pinch of scepticism and a healthy dose of open-mindedness. Again and again le Carré’s novels come up in conversation and this one in particular is held up as being the great spy novel to read, so I decided it was time I gave it a go.
“The best spy novel I have ever read.” Graham Greene
I was sceptical because often when a book has been hailed as a masterpiece (in this case for many years) the reader’s level of expectation can be so high that it turns out to be a disappointment. I like to call this the Harry Potter effect. Not, Harry Potter-the-later-books which are great; but Harry Potter I’ve-heard-all-about-it-and-I’m-going-to-start-with-book-one. Be honest; The Philosopher’s Stone is a disappointment…
Back to The Spy.
The Plot (spoiler alert)
Leamas is fiftyish, short, grey, strong and tough-looking. He’s a spy for the British secret services, “the Circus”. The novel opens with the death of one of Leamas’s agents at a checkpoint in Berlin, presumably modelled on Checkpoint Charlie. Leamas is waiting for him to come over from the East side when he is shot by an East German sentry. This is his last remaining East German agent – the others already captured or shot – so it’s at this point Leamas knows his cards are marked.
“…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.”
When Leamas returns to London he is called on by Control, the head of the Circus, to complete one last operation, after which he can “come in from the cold”, hang up his operational boots and return to a desk job or a pension. Leamas is tasked with faking defection to East Germany and to get rid of Mundt, the head of the East German intelligence service; at least that is what he is lead to believe by Control.
In creating the cover for his defection Leamas turns to heavy drinking, personal neglect and then one day suddenly walks out on his tedious desk job in the banking department at the Circus (the job they give to agents “on the shelf”). He takes a squalid flat and after some time going from one unsuccessful job to another and building up a reputation for being a bit of an unpleasant character, he takes a job at a library.
At the library Leamas meets a young woman called Liz and after a time the two become lovers. Liz, as it happens, also turns out to be an active Communist Party member. They have a low key affair and Leamas doesn’t tell Liz much about himself at all but makes her aware that he will one day just up and disappear and that will be the end of it, though they clearly have quite a strong attachment.
Leamas does just that. One day he decides it’s time, he picks a fight with a local greengrocer, gets himself landed with a spell in jail and on his release allows himself to be picked up by the East Germans. He defects and goes with them to Germany to carry out his operation, cautiously ingratiates himself with Fiedler, the East German agent tasked with ‘looking after’ him and with whom a mutal bond of respect is slowly formed.
Fiedler, from information fed to him by Leamas, comes to suspect his leader, Mundt, of being a double agent. Back in England the Circus offer money to Liz, claiming that Leamas asked them to look after her (which is untrue – he specifically asks them not to go near her) and they pay off his debts (thus discrediting his status as a downtrodden and broke lowlife). If this is all sounding very convoluted, then that’s exactly it. The challenging subtext is often very confusing and deliberately so; this is le Carré weaving very clever and intricate subplots. Although he has a slow pace to his writing style, often describing something in minute or even tedious detail, the way in which le Carré twists and manipulates the plot, sometimes obviously, sometimes unexpectedly, is very clever and brings out the double-crossing and deception in the novel with great skill.
Stop here if you don’t want to know what happens next
Fiedler informs the Abteilung (intelligence) of his suspicions of Mundt’s illicit activities and Mundt is arrested and put on trial in East Germany. Leamas is called on as witness but Mundt’s defence play an unpleasant hand and have tricked Liz into coming with them to East Germany, under pretence of an all-expenses-paid Communist Party conference and they call on her as a witness for the defence, i.e. to implicate Leamas as the double agent and seal his fate. The trial takes a turn for the worse and Mundt goes from being pretty near convicted of the highest degree of treason to having Fiedler and Leamas convicted of conspiracy and essentially condemned to death. Liz and Leamas are sent to the cells and after a time Mundt comes along and frees them. Yes, that’s right, he is the double-agent after all.
So it’s at this point that we know for sure that Mundt is the double agent and that the British Circus have been running him, not wanting to eliminate him; we know that Liz has been used by the British secret service, without her knowledge or consent and without regard for her safety and Leamas has been used, not for the purposes he thought, i.e. getting rid of Mundt, but to assist Mundt in getting rid of Fiedler, a man Leamas had come to think of as a good man and to respect.
“All right!” Leamas shouted suddenly. “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you what you were never, never to know, neither you nor I. Listen: Mundt is London’s man, their agent; they bought him when he was in England. We are witnessing the lousy end to a filthy, lousy operation to save Mundt’s skin. To save him from a clever little Jew in his own department who had begun to suspect the truth. They made us kill him, d’you see, kill the Jew. Now you know, and God help us both.”
Mundt arranges for Leamas and Liz to be taken to the Wall. A time and place has been arranged for them to cross but time is limited and it is a risky business. They have to get back across the wall to safety. Leamas is at the top of the wall, reaches down to help Liz up the last stretch when a shot is fired and Liz falls to the ground. Leamas has been double-crossed by the Circus again. George Smiley, Control’s deputy, is at the top of the wall on the other side, encouraging Leamas to let her go. It seems that this was their intention; Liz would have been a liability back home, so the Circus decided she had to go. Unfortunately all that Leamas has cared about throughout his time in East Germany was that Liz should stay safe and once she has gone, he gives himself up and goes back down the wall to her body where he too is shot for trying to escape.
When reading the novel I was at times bored; a very unusual thing for me with a book, especially such a short one. Usually if I find a book so bad as to be boring I give it up and move on; after all, one thing I’m not short of is books! So a bad book is swiftly dispatched these days and I pick up a new one. But this was different. It was by no means a bad book and I almost felt like I was meant to be bored in places; the monotony of day-to-day life, of creating a cover, of doing mundane everyday things and not necessarily things you wanted to be doing. All the while I was feeling these moments of boredom I was also drawn in with the feeling that I might have missed something important. It’s a book you have to concentrate on when you’re reading it. If I was reading it at night I occasionally had to go back a few paragraphs the next day to pick up the plot again and see if I’d missed something important – this is something I rarely need to do with a novel.
I also thought I was pretty much allergic to spy stories – I don’t like blood, gore, murder or forensic detail – but I do enjoy some good old-fashioned detective work in novels. There’s nothing of the former in The Spy and plenty of the latter; definitely more literary political thriller than old-fashioned spy story.
Le Carré gives it both barrels in assault on the glamorous world of espionage; launching an attack on the very different spying world portrayed in Ian Fleming’s successful 007 James Bond novels. With le Carré, himself a former MI5 (1958-1960) and MI6 (1960-1964) officer , we see a much more bleak reality of spying as mundane, at times boring, frightening and quite frankly untrusting and double-crossing. Through his anti-Communist, anti-Bond-hero Leamas, le Carré questions the morality of the means employed to achieve the aims or peace of democratic countries; though neither does he extol the virtues of the alternative Communist model. The British Secret Service is portrayed as brutal in their pitiless treatment of the innocent Liz, as in their treatment of long-serving and trusted agent, Lemas. This alternative spy novel is a more plausible, though without the Bond hero and the Fleming villains, perhaps slightly less conventionally thrilling, spy story than the British public had previously been used to when the book was first published.
Things I wasn’t so keen on: some of the mechanical prose and lack of depth for some of the characters, making it difficult to empathise with and ‘get-to-know’ the characters in the novel. I found it difficult to empathise with main character Leamas, even though I wanted him to have his opportunity to “come in from the cold”, both in person and emotionally, and I strongly disliked the treatment of him by the service, I thought he lacked the depth needed for a good characterisation. While the service didn’t need to know his inner thoughts it wouldn’t have hurt to let the reader in on a few inner conflicts or thought processes. The novel is also very masculine, with hints of male chauvinism which I didn’t much like but which are perhaps indicative of the time in which it was written and set. Some of the things I’ve already mentioned, such as the lengthy descriptions and quite tedious sections, I wasn’t too keen on but recognise their use ultimately adds to the success of the novel.
While reading the book I found it quite unremarkable but when I finished it and began to reflect on it I began to see it in a quite different light. Now, several days later, and after much reflection (this in itself is a mark of its success as I don’t usually reflect on books for quite so long after I’ve finished reading them) I can see the brilliance of it in the twisting plot and the ruthless and brutal portrayal of the harsh realities of intelligence work. It’s not a book I can say I loved but I can now acknowledge its importance in literature, both in general and in the spy thriller genre more specifically. It broke new ground at the time and fifty years on speaks just as powerfully as it must have done then. The Berlin wall was erected, in its initial crude version in 1961 and strengthened later, going through several phases of strengthening or reconstruction before becoming the reinforced concrete wall we can most readily visualise, between 1975-1980. The last escapee shot and killed at the wall was 20-year-old Chris Gueffroy in 1989, just months before the wall came down in November of that year. The world may not live under the immediate threat of the Cold War any longer but other threats are every bit as real now, espionage still obviously being employed by all sides in conflict (and at peace), and the issues addressed in the novel remain as significant now as they were in the 1960s.
The 50th anniversary edition of the book (2013) contains an additional introduction from le Carré which makes for interesting reflective reading:
I wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at the age of 30 under intense unshared personal stress, and in extreme privacy. As an intelligence officer in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, I was a secret to my colleagues, and much of the time to myself. I had written a couple of earlier novels, necessarily under a pseudonym, and my employing service had approved them for publication. After lengthy soul-searching, they had also approved The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. To this day, I don’t know what I would have done if they hadn’t.
As it was, they seem to have concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security. This was not, however, the view taken by the world’s press, which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving with me nothing to do but watch in a kind of frozen awe as it climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.
And to my awe, add over time a kind of impotent anger.
Anger because from the day my novel was published I realised that now and forever more I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world, and written about it.
If you don’t know much about the Cold War, read it; if you know heaps about the Cold War I still recommend you read it. If you’re not that interested in the spy thriller genre of the Cold War, still read it for it is worth it just for the style of writing and intelligence of the novel as construction of fiction. I will be reading some more Le Carré soon, though perhaps still with a hint of scepticism and a bucketful of open-mindedness. Le Carré has said that his most realistic Cold War novel is The Looking Glass War… guess which le Carré I’ll be reading next.
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