John Le Carre’s Humble Beginnings
The topic of spycraft has evolved beyond recognition over the past few decades, largely thanks to the meteoric rise of digital technology. Both mass and precise surveillance now seem more easily attainable than ever, to the point where it barely feels worth it to try and keep anything secret anymore.
Though this is very likely contributing to our general safety as a society, what it does take away from us are the captivating spy novels of older times, when much of the work relied on people, psychology and correct deductions. Fifty years ago, the grand master of these types of novels, John Le Carre, published his first and timeless bestseller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and what better time to revisit it than its half-century anniversary?
The novel begins by introducing us to Alec Leamas, a British agent tasked with keeping a network of spies in East Germany, though at the moment he is just trying to ensure his last surviving agent makes it back across the border to safety. When he personally sees him gunned down right before reaching sanctuary, a fog of bitter disillusionment takes over the man as he returns to London and prepares for retirement.
However, the director of The Circus, the spy agency Leamas works for, is about to give him an opportunity for retribution, a chance to bring down the German spymaster responsible for dismantling his network: Mundt.
From there on out, a rather complex plot with ever-increasing layers is hatched by the Circus to send Leamas to East Germany under the guise of a disgruntled defector whose country gave him nothing for his years of service. Slowly but surely, he gathers information and spreads misinformation, all with the ultimate goal of getting to Mundt and eliminating him for good.
However, even the best-laid plans tend to go awry, especially in the unpredictable times of war and conflict, and questions of morality and humanity begin to float towards the surface as the agents continue with their thankless duties, hoping to extract some sense and worth out of their lives.
Learn the Master’s Craft in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
For those who aren’t totally familiar with John le Carre, he actually had the distinction of serving himself in both MI5 and MI6 during the 1950s and 1960s, basically the height of the Cold War. If there is any author in this world actually qualified to discuss the topic of espionage and depict it in its complete veracity, I would lay my money on him.
While there is definitely a story being told in this book (more on this a bit later), like with any John le Carre novel, the primary focus of his efforts seems to lay in the accurate and meticulous depiction of the art of espionage.
If it wasn’t officially labelled as a novel, I feel like some of the passages could actually be used as educative materials for aspiring intelligence officers. We are pretty much literally never spared any detail about the mechanical workings of the profession, and are always privy to exact explanations as to why and how to do things.
I will admit, it does take a certain predisposition to appreciate this kind of writing, as it is found fairly often throughout the book; if you can’t stand a slow and deliberate pace with profound explanations, then you will probably have trouble with this aspect of the book.
On the other hand, if you are like myself and truly enjoy learning all the small bits and pieces about Cold War spycraft, then you’ll find it tremendously complements the rest of the plot and prevents The Spy Who Came in from the Cold from ever becoming boring. After all, if you’re always learning something new in a topic which interests you, there is simply no room left to experience boredom.
The Heavy Souls of the Damned
Like I mentioned before, while it is a John le Carre novel and goes very hard on the various technical details of espionage, it also tells a rather compelling and thought-provoking story with the primary focus of exploring the various repercussions of the morally-questionable choices the agents make.
We witness as they are often thrust into unwinnable situations, and how they are forced time and time again to make decisions with limited information, with people’s lives hanging in the balance. Specifically-speaking, we get a good representation of the innocent bystanders tragically hurt by the spy games through Liz Gold, a lover Alec makes the acquaintance of early on.
I really enjoyed Le Carre’s impartial approach to this whole thing, despite himself having been on one side of the conflict back in his days. He doesn’t depict the Germans as soulless killing machines nor the protagonists as being chivalrous knights in white armour. Both sides are depicted about as realistically as I assume they can be, simply as people with their own lives, ideologies and beliefs, just trying to make the best out of the hands they were dealt.
Along with all of this we still have the captivating plot itself, the operation set up by The Circus to bring Mundt down. To Le Carre’s credit, it pretty much always remains the driving force for whatever might be happening, in one way or another, and despite its somewhat torturous complexity at times it remains suspenseful and engaging in its own right.
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The author’s realistic tone and style of writing also lends the whole thing an palpable air of authenticity, which in turn creates the kind of suspense and obviously fictional story can seldom achieve.
The Final Verdict
John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is making more and more of a case for itself being one of the best novels of the century, still holding up strong as ever fifty years after its original publication.
The combination of educative elements about espionage, the exploration of its moral aspects and a strong plot make this, in my opinion, a must-read for anyone even slightly curious about Cold War spies… especially since the author is one of the few these days to have lived it himself.
John le Carre
(October 19, 1931 – December 12, 2020)
David John Moore Cornwell , better known by his pen name John le Carre, is a British former intelligence officer and author whose works are all centred on the domain of espionage.
He had the distinction of working for both MI5 and MI6 during the 1950s and 1960s, at the same time as his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became an international bestseller.
Several of his most celebrated works have been adapted into movies and television series, including The Constant Gardener, The Night Manager and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.