I’ve not read much in the way of spy stories previously. In fact, The Thirty-Nine Steps is probably the only other real spy tale I have read. I’ve seen a couple of television adaptations of John le Carré books though, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and have also heard on a number of occasions that le Carré is a superb writer. So, I decided that I’d like to read some of his work and asked for this, his 1963 breakthrough novel, for Christmas.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - John le Carré

The plot is set in the very tense and unstable Cold War era, just after the Berlin Wall has been erected in Germany. Alec Leamas is a burnt-out fifty year old British agent, who has been working in the field for so long that he now knows no other form of existence. However, things have not been going well for him lately; he has had little significant intelligence to feed back to London for a long time and he keeps losing agents under his supervision. It seems that he can barely recruit and put in place a new agent these days before the agent is discovered and killed. Someone knows too much. Somewhere intelligence is leaking like a broken pipe. It is not long before Control (the head of the British Secret Intelligence) calls Leamas in to question him about what is going on and to ask him to perform one last special operation:

‘How did you feel? When Riemeck was shot, I mean? You saw it, didn’t you?’

Leamas shrugged. ‘I was bloody annoyed,’ he said.

Control put his head on one side and half closed his eyes. ‘Surely you felt more than that? Surely you were upset? That would be more natural.’

‘I was upset. Who wouldn’t be?’

‘Did you like Riemeck – as a man?’

‘I suppose so,’ said Leamas helplessly. ‘There doesn’t seem much point in going into it,’ he added.

The above excerpt gives some indication of the sort of character le Carré has created in Alec Leamas: a tough yet broken man, with little emotion or humanity left in him. His years of espionage have hardened him to other people, to himself and even to the reasons why  the Cold War is being fought. All of which, of course, make him a perfect tool in the hands of his masters.

This is a cold, dark, tense narrative, which manages to convey an awful lot in its sparse prose. It is indeed brilliantly written; everything boiled back to the essential, elemental facts; to actions and their consequences. The book is also shocking in its portrayal of the dark espionage methods and values of a supposedly decent, democratic Britain. At one point Control tries to explain away why it is that they sometimes do what they do, however in the context of this novel, his words provide little comfort to the reader:

We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. Is that too romantic? Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things.’ He grinned like a schoolboy. ‘And in weighing up the moralities, we rather go in for dishonest comparisons; after all, you can’t compare the ideals of one side with the methods of the other, can you, now?