John le Carré – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Book Review)

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold  cover

John le Carré – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

The setting of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is pure Cold War, focused mainly on the conflict between British intelligence agents and East Germany. But the book’s worldview is still relevant fifty years later. Author John le Carré portrays the spies on each side as amoral people who ignore their nations’ stated ideals in order to win the battles. The psychological toll on agents is high and the chance to “come in from the cold” (regain their humanity) is perpetually out of reach. This point of view isn’t nearly as surprising today as it was in 1963, but the novel’s depiction of it is powerful. Le Carré’s history as a member of British intelligence gives it an additional authority.

The book follows Alec Leamas, a competent British agent who nonetheless has a history of failure against the East Germans. His superiors send Leamas on one last mission that takes advantage of his reputation. Leamas, pretending to be fired and disgraced, sells his knowledge to Communist agents. This includes misinformation calculated to convince them that one of their highest officers is a traitor. The goal is to get the East Germans to eliminate their own man, since Leamas had failed to do it the traditional way. But as the plot unfolds, the danger to Leamas grows and new wrinkles about the mission are discovered. It all ties in to the idea that the “good guys” may be doing bad things out of pragmatism.

The story, especially the ending, is clever and will stick with the reader. The writing is simple and workmanlike, but that’s not a flaw in a story that’s supposed to evoke a spy’s practical mindset. There is one very frustrating aspect, though, and that’s the woman who falls in love with Leamas. It seems that she does this for no reason other than the fact that that happens in spy stories, as Leamas never does anything to earn her attention. She is supposed to be the sort of moral person who is at odds with cynical spies, so the book definitely would have been stronger if she’d been developed well enough for the reader to care about her.

Despite that, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is worth reading. It’s an interesting spy story in addition to making a statement. It’s quick, fun, and a little disturbing. I think it’s lost some of its power now that people are less idealistic about spy stories, but it still works even from that perspective.

Grade: B

 
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