Review: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

Posted 13 October, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 2 Comments

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
By: John le Carre
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase

In the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall, Alec Leamas watches as his last agent is shot dead by East German sentries. For Leamas, the head of Berlin Station, the Cold War is over. As he faces the prospect of retirement or worse—a desk job—Control offers him a unique opportunity for revenge. Assuming the guise of an embittered and dissolute ex-agent, Leamas is set up to trap Mundt, the deputy director of the East German Intelligence Service—with himself as the bait. In the background is George Smiley, ready to make the game play out just as Control wants.

I seem to be on a bit of a John le Carre roll, having read A Most Wanted Man (review) fairly recently. This particular book however has been on my want-to-read for so long, ever since I first heard of John le Carre and having read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (movie review) years ago. I was quite excited when I finally got my hands on the book for a good deal at a bookstore some time ago xD

Like any other John le Carre novel, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is a slow burn; sometimes the intentions of some actions or events are so subtle, you have to pause just to figure out the motivations or how that would impact Leamas’ overall objective. I can see why it was such a revolutionary novel in the genre of suspense and espionage thrillers–like his other novels, it not only shows that intellectual component to combating with their enemy counterparts, but also the moral grey that many of these agents inhabit. Alec Leamas is, by all accounts, worn out by the demands of his job, and finds himself questioning his life at some points.

I haven’t quite come across a romantic relationship yet in any of le Carre’s books that felt natural or remotely emotional, so Liz Gold and Alec’s relationship was a little weird to read at first. I initially thought the development of their relationship might’ve been part of Leamas’ overall scheme–though it does factor in a way–but after a while I can see the effect their relationship and her presence in his life was. In the same vein, it seemed like the relationship served more as a vehicle of contrasting ideologies and beliefs; there’s this wonderful confrontation scene that was really telling both of Alec’s inner/psychological/emotional beliefs/reality/state of mind as well as where Liz was coming from beyond her Communist beliefs. I wish there had been a bit more time spent on Liz and her own beliefs/activities beyond Alec’s story, if only because it played such a big role later on.

What was also startling about the novel was the attitudes that were prevalent in this period. I don’t know why I was so surprised that anti-semitism was still rather rampant in the Eastern German half during this period; I suppose the effects of the Second World War and Nazism wasn’t so high on the Communists’ lists of things to correct.

As an aside, I love how George Smiley and Peter Guillam were at the edges of this whole drama, pulling their own strings and quietly orchestrating events in a particular direction while staying out of the spotlight–they only had maybe 2 scenes total?–altogther for Leamas to just react and go with his mission. Nonetheless, it was exciting to see them in this book, especially as I believe this book came before the Karla trilogy (?).

Overall, I’m glad to have finally gotten around to reading The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Unlike the more recent books I’ve read by the author, there is something about his earlier titles that are just so fascinating, a real touch of classic to them. In the same vein though, this book was really slow, with things only picking up towards the end. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still my favourite novel by le Carre, but I can see now why this book was as lauded as it is.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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2 Responses to “Review: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold”

    • Sorry to hear! I enjoyed the movie adapatation of The Constant Gardener and hope to read it at some point…But yeah, I hear that if you want to start reading le Carre, it’s best to read his early stuff because they’re the best 🙂 Hope you enjoy Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when you get to it!

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