The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré
This was the October choice for our book group and I must say it proved to be a popular one given that several of the group had moaned not a Le Carré when I suggested it; however this one’s relative brevity, tautness and utter plausibility won out.
Since the recent BBC Radio 4 dramatisations of the all Le Carré’s George Smiley novels, I had been itching to start re-reading them. Spy, in which Smiley only makes some brief appearances, is the first and the one I’ve forgotten more than the others. The cover of the handsome new Penguin Modern Classics edition captured my imagination from the outset.
Set shortly after the Berlin Wall was erected, Alec Leamas is due to come back in from the cold after spying in Berlin for years. He’s seen it all, and survived – so far, but Control has one last mission for him before he can come home for good. In a big game of bluff, Control and Leamas set up a plan to catch Mundt, the German spymaster which will involve Leamas betraying his country. He’s set up as a disgraced ex-spook, living in drab lodgings, a dead-end job, and drinking far too much. What he doesn’t bargain for though is striking up a friendship with young co-worker Liz – a member of the Communist party who falls for him, and indeed she comes to mean a lot to Leamas too…
Leamas is a wonderful character – having also seen the film ages ago, he came to life off the page for me very much in Richard Burton mode (perfect casting I thought), and this quote from the novel gets him to a T for me …
It was hard to place Leamas. If he were to walk into a London club the porter would certainly not mistake him for a member; in a Berlin night club they usually gave him the best table. He looked like a man who could make trouble, a man who looked after his money, a man who was not quite a gentleman.
Leamas is also a consummate professional. During his life as a spy, he’s always played a role, rarely allowed to be himself – but there are flashes here and there and underneath it all he’s a tortured soul. The whole novel was suffused with these shades of grey – nothing is ever quite what it seems – you can trust no-one completely.
Le Carré’s third novel was the one that made his career take off. Legend has it that the British Secret Services gave it to all new spies to read and learn from but the self-effacing author insists that despite having been a spook for a while, it is all made up. Fantasy it may be, but it feels so real. It is also full of what we would call good old-fashioned ‘spy craft’ – there’s none of the gloss of the current TV Spooks. It is anchored in its own zeitgeist, where the post-war legacy of the 1950s has yet to give way to the new youth-led culture of the 1960s. Then there is the wall looming over this book, that symbol of the Cold War, the then new barrier between them and us.
I love spy novels, and this book is one of the very best. (10/10)
P.S. I am immensely excited about the film of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy which brings George Smiley to the fore in the hunt for the mole in London centre. Gary Oldman is Smiley, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and Mark Strong are to co-star, and it’s directed by Tomas ‘Let the right one in’ Alfredson.
To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click the links below:
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Le Carré
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold [DVD] starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (BBC Audio) with Simon Russell Beale as Smiley and Brian Cox as Leamas.