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

Synopsis:  In this classic, John le Carré‘s third novel and the first to earn him international acclaim, he created a world unlike any previously experienced in suspense fiction. With unsurpassed knowledge culled from his years in British Intelligence, le Carré brings to light the shadowy dealings of international espionage in the tale of a British agent who longs to end his career but undertakes one final, bone-chilling assignment.

When the last agent under his command is killed and Alec Leamas is called back to London, he hopes to come in from the cold for good. His spymaster, Control, however, has other plans. Determined to bring down the head of East German Intelligence and topple his organization, Control once more sends Leamas into the fray — this time to play the part of the dishonored spy and lure the enemy to his ultimate defeat.

First Line:  “The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back and sleep?  We can ring you if he shows up.”

Random Quote:  “Confronted with the almost impossible task of identifying the informant from the incomplete records of thirty-one candidates, Leamas returned to the original material, which, he said, was something he should have done earlier.  It puzzled him that in none of the photostat minutes he had so far received were the pages numbered, that none was stamped with a security classification, and that in the second and fourth copy words were crossed out in pencil or crayon.”

Review:  It’s been a long time since I first read this, in high school.  It didn’t make as big an impression on me as the George Smiley novels did – it’s much less epic, more subtle, I think.

East German guards feed the birds from their p...East German guards feed the birds from the Guard Tower at Checkpoint Charlie – Berlin Wall – Image via Wikipedia

I’m reading books that were published in my birth year so when I found that this was one of them I put it on the list.  I’m glad I did, it’s a very different book when read as an adult.  Maybe it’s just that I’m in the same part of my life as the main character, Alec Leamas – I understand his growing and vague sense of dissatisfaction, of time running out before you get to do that one really cool thing.

le Carré can write – there is no doubt of that – and his novels written during and about the Cold War are mostly brilliant.  I’ve never been a huge fan of the James Bond-type spy novels.  I much prefer the notion that le Carré lays out – of a game grounded in utter pragmatism, its heroes largely unsung.  The game as it is presented in these books has no clear answers, no clear victories, nothing, but ambiguity stacked on ambiguity – that’s what makes these brilliant.

The Berlin Wall came down when I was in grad school.  Throughout my earlier life it loomed there in the distance, a place where desperate people were killed by their own governments, where families were separated by an ideology made real through stone and barbed wire.  These days it’s easy to forget what that might have been like, but le Carré definitely captures that in this book.
Spare, cynical, dispassionate, and utterly tragic this book lays the groundwork for the George Smiley books that followed.  It’s a wonderful read.

FTC Disclosure:  Bought at


Reading Challenges:  Birth Year Reading Challenge

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