The Cold War was a murky conflict, so murky that it’s hard to tell what one is fighting for or what strategies are beyond the pale. London and Moscow are both convinced that they know what’s right and necessary. The people on the ground, however, have no time for ideology. People like Alec Leamas are doing their best to keep their agents and informers alive. When everything goes wrong at the beginning of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Leamas’s long career gets even more complicated and he has to dance to his master’s awful tune one more time.
When Leamas’ East Berlin network is killed, his career is over and he is furious with everyone, especially the head of the German Democratic Republic’s Counter Espionage Department, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Leamas is recalled to London and pitched one last job: to get revenge on Mundt. The plan is elaborate; London has thought of everything. We watch Leamas get kicked out of British Intelligence, hit rock bottom, and keep digging. It’s all part of the plan, we’re told, but it’s hard to watch a good agent ruin himself.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold races along as Leamas gets deeper and deeper into London’s plan. Things go so well, in fact, that I got very anxious waiting for the twist because things were going too well. It was almost a relief when the twist came.
I’ve only read one other novel by le Carré, The Russia House, and this book had a very different feel. Instead of being full of slow exposition and maneuvering, most of this book is dialog. There are no extra words. Instead, we have a finely drawn portrait of a spy on his last legs and tense drama. The ending of this book floored me.
This book isn’t perfect. I should note that because this novel was originally published in the early 1960s, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is full of casual anti-Semitism and homophobia. The primary female character, Liz Gold, is a pawn and most of the other characters in the book are only briefly sketched out. This book is all about Leamas; as long as you keep your eyes on him, this is a cracking spy novel.