A Quick Look Back at The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
A British intelligence agent throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, David Cornwell, under the pseudonym John le Carré, went on to use his personal experience of the ethically destitute climate of Cold War espionage to create a fictional world more unglamorous, chilling, and dispirited than any previously ventured by a writer of spy thrillers — and more gripping and compelling in just about every way. In thrall to “the expediency of temporary alliances” that makes them pawns in an amoral but mortal calculus, his always compromised characters move through an alienated existence wearing the masks of their assumed identities.
The price of their disguises is le Carré’s recurring theme, and it is nowhere more powerfully explored than in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. In this, le Carré’s third novel and the one that made his reputation, we meet Alec Leamas: “Aware of the overwhelming temptations which assail a man permanently isolated in his deceit, Leamas resorted to the course which armed him best. Even when he was alone, he compelled himself to live with the personality he had assumed.”
It’s Berlin in the early 1960s, and the agents in Leamas’s command are being killed. When the last of them dies, Leamas carries his failure back to London, relieved to finally be “coming in from the cold.” But his spymaster, Control, has a different idea, deploying Leamas in the all-too-congenial role of disgraced former agent in order to initiate a complicated game of cat and mouse designed to protect a British double agent operating in the upper echelons of East German intelligence. The intricately plotted puzzle is rivetingly plausible, especially because the spies are being strung along by their superiors as cunningly as the readers are being strung along by le Carré. A love story wends its way through the tale as well, adding its sad weight to the several other kinds of heartbreak the author so tellingly exposes.
More than a thriller (but very much that), The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a novel in which one man’s weariness, confusion, and pervasive doubt cross the border of his peculiar occupation to resonate with broader, if less dramatic, human truths. It is very hard to forget, and the first full expression of the gifts its author would share with readers in nearly two dozen subsequent books.
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