Wednesday, July 11, 2012

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

"What do you think spies are: priests, saints and 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."

I hesitate to call The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a spy novel, because I think that phrase brings with it certain modern connotations. This book is an espionage novel.

The events in the book occur in the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the Cold War. The British Secret Intelligence Service asks Alec Leamas to pretend to defect to East Germany and then feed them misinformation that would lead them to believe that one of their men was a British double agent. This is the crux of the story. To make Leamas seem prime for defection, he is unceremoniously sacked and provided with only a meager pension. Leamas is given a job at a small library, from which is promptly gets fired.

By the time the East German Communists decide to come calling on Leamas, he has drunk himself into a hole. What Leamas and British Intelligence did not count on was that someone else would also coming calling on him. Liz Gold, a woman that he met while working at the library is concerned for Leamas, and comes to find him and make sure he is alright. It is unclear to the reader how much Leamas is still in control of his life at this point and--at least initially--if he has actual feelings for Gold. Perhaps Leamas wasn't sure himself. Needless to say, Gold's involvement with Leamas complicates everything.

I cannot think of a a novel with an ending that was more taut than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

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