The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carré

Article published on January 23, 2012.

Late last year, I made the mistake of admitting, in public, having never read any John le Carré.  It wasn’t a pleasant experience; anyone wishing to approximate it should try standing on any street in America announcing never having tried cheeseburgers.  So, with the shame still burning my cheeks, I set about resolving the situation.

The Spy Who Came in from The Cold was le Carré’s breakthrough novel.  Taking place in that historically gloomy period when rationing was a recent memory, the Berlin wall was under construction and the sixties hadn’t yet started to swing, it introduced us to Alec Leamas, a burned-out spy drafted into a final mission; masquerading as a defector to the Communist GDR.

In a world where spies had been seen as democracy’s knights in shining armour, The Spy blasted traditional thinking out of the water.  Alec Leamas has more than a little of the hardboiled detective about him; misanthropic, hard living and lacking in humour he is far from a clean-cut good guy.  Above all though, he is cynical to a point that is almost indistinguishable from nihilism, and it is this cynicism that makes him so striking.  He carries out orders with a ruthless efficiency and professionalism, but does so not with lofty notions of Queen and country, but instead almost with spite.  He has cast aside almost all his humanity in order to do what demands to be done.

It is in this bleak pragmatism, embraced most visibly but not exclusively by Leamas,  that le Carré makes his most shocking statement.  Ultimately the methods of East and West are the same; for both sides, operational expediency trumps ethical concerns every time.  Le Carré frequently returns to this theme.  When Leamas suspects he may have been betrayed by a morally squeamish colleague, he bemoans his “wretched little conscience;” when asked if he thinks his employers have acted according to that same conscience, he replies, “they don’t really think in those terms.”  And of course, there is that excellent, cynical tirade, repeated again in William Boyd’s excellent introduction –

What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs?  They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.

There are no heroes, then, in le Carré’s world.  Not only this, but espionage in The Spy is not about shoot-outs, car-chases and ambassadorial functions; the spies here are lowly civil servants, bureaucrats like any other, carrying out the orders of those on high.

Those orders are often bewildering, so much so that both the cast and the reader can be left in doubt as to what is really happening.  During the latter stages of the book, the purpose of Leamas’ mission is called into question, leading to a Kafkaesque sequence in which the man himself is almost entirely clueless as to the thinking of his paymasters in Britain.  Throughout the book, le Carré assumes intelligence on the part of the reader, never stopping to explain where instead he could press on.  This unabashed complexity has ensured that, over the decades, many readers have returned to The Spy time and time again.

As Boyd notes in his introduction to this Penguin edition, there is another reason for The Spy’s endless readability;  it is riddled with ambiguity.  The motivations of each character are never explained, at least not explicitly and unequivocally.  Right to the end, we are left pondering the real truth of the book, and for that reason The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an espionage masterpiece.  Le Carré brings the reader into his dark world of duplicity and deception, and piles lies upon lies until even we, the reader, doubt what we see and hear.


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  1. Great review! You have made me want to read it again. When I first read it I was very young and didn’t understand much of it. I have read a lot of Le Carre in the past but have not enjoyed his more recent books so much. My favourites are Smiley’s People (but you have to read the not-quite-as-good Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy first, and ideally The Honourable Schoolboy, very good, which is second in the trilogy but not as directly relevant to the other two books) and The Little Drummer Girl which is excellent and anticipated much of the current terrorism situtation – eerily prescient, as nobody believed what he was writing about then – all too generally accepted now.

  2. Cheers Maxine. I’ll certainly be trying to squeeze in some more le Carre, although my TBR pile is back up above 30 again, despite some fairly ruthless thinning out…

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