The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré: A review


Continuing with my plan to reread John le Carré's George Smiley novels, I've now come to the third one and the best one so far. It had been many, many years since I had read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and since I had seen the movie based on it. I must admit that even though I thought I vaguely remembered the plot, I found myself newly surprised and intrigued by what I was reading and it was difficult to put the book down. Moreover, the conclusion was just as much of a gut-punch as it was the first time around.

It almost seems a misnomer to call this a George Smiley novel because Smiley barely even appears in it. Instead, the central character is Alec Leamas.

It is the middle of the 20th century; World War II is history and the Cold War is well underway. The Berlin Wall is in place. Leamas is based in Germany and runs a network of British spies from there. But things are not going well. The spies under his command are being killed one by one. At first, he thinks it is a coincidence but then it becomes clear that they are being picked off and eliminated. When the last agent under his command is killed, Leamas is recalled to London.

He is burnt out and wants out. He wants to come in from the cold for good, but London has other ideas.

Leamas' boss is a man who is always referred to simply as Control. When Leamas indicates that he's ready to get out, Control convinces him that he must fulfill one last mission for British Intelligence. He is determined to bring down the head of East German Intelligence who is responsible for the deaths of all those agents in Leamas' network. What he wants is nothing short of destroying that intelligence organization. The plans for doing this are a convoluted scheme that will depend on the skill of Alec Leamas to convince the East Germans that he is disillusioned and ready to turn and cooperate with them. If he is successful, he will be able to lure the East German spymaster into ultimate defeat.

Leamas plays his role perfectly, except that along the way he meets a woman for whom he learns to care. Their affair ends when Leamas, continuing in his role, assaults a man and ends up in prison. He has warned the woman to stay away and to never talk about their relationship. Of course, if he had been advising one of his agents, he would have told him never to get involved and certainly never to fall in love. Any "weakness" will be exploited by the enemy.

Leamas continues in his assigned role in prison and when he is released. He is the disgruntled ex-spy and as such he is soon approached by the East Germans. Control's plan seems to be working perfectly.

As typical in a le Carré novel, all of the characters here are flawed and none of them are to be trusted. Some of them are brilliant and some of them are stupid, some compassionate and some cruel, but it is not always clear at first which is which. He spins out his tale in a manner that I consider absolutely brilliant. The sequence of the revelations about all these characters is quite simply spine-tingling. And just when we think we know everything, the author is always holding something back, some final twist that we can't possibly imagine. He never loses his way in his labyrinthine plot. John le Carré was the master of this genre. I don't know of anyone who has ever done it better.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. Great review. Like you, I read this one decades ago and hardly recognize any of the plot elements you describe here. Makes me wonder why I spend so much money on new books when all the "old" books on my shelves can always be read for the "first time." LOL

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    1. Good point, Sam. I find that if I return to books I read years ago, even ones that I loved like this one, I often cannot recall plot points. Sometimes I even have trouble remembering more recent books, which is why I need to review them as soon as I finish reading!

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  2. i don't think i ever read this even tho i saw the movie which i recall as being pretty incomprehensible but that's me not the film, lol... for some reason i developed a distaste for le Carre's books, having to do, maybe, with how he kills off his protagonists at the finale of many of them...

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    1. It's funny how we sometimes do develop a dislike for a particular author's work, even those that have been highly acclaimed by others. I could mention several well-known writers with whom I've experienced that. Generally, I've read one book by them and decided they were not for me. One of those that springs immediately to mind just died - Anne Rice.

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  3. Your review makes me want to read it. I've never read him and have always thought that his books would be over my head since I usually have trouble understanding and following government and espionage matters.

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    1. His books do have complicated plots that are filled with misdirection but they are so well written that I would not say they are especially hard to follow.

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  4. It has been so many years since I read this that I don't remember anything other than being fascinated at the time. In fact, I don't remember anything about the couple of Smiley books I read. When I saw Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy several years ago with Benedict Cumberbatch, I only found a few things familiar. Your review makes me want to begin at the beginning and read all of them. I only read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold because it was on Mother's bookshelf with at least one other Smiley book.

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    1. I've now reread three and found them all very much worth it. So much I didn't remember! I do plan to continue with the others in the new year.

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  5. Le Carre is the master of cold war spy novels! I'm glad my library still has copies of his books. I need to read some next year. :)

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  6. Wow! You really enjoyed this one. Even when books don't appear to be my-cuppa, I like to see the books that people really enjoy. Sometimes I'm even persuaded to try something that initially appears to be outside my reading happy place...

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