Date finished: November 11th 2015
James Bond, the suave, seductive, skillful spy who defined an era of films is fantastic. There’s nothing more satisfying than a good Bond film (preferably a Sean Connery one) as he quips and punches his way through the Cold War whilst consuming more martinis than can possibly be healthy for a man with such a strenuous job. Spying looks like the high life.
Of course, it’s utter farce. Bond is great fun, but a ridiculously romantic portrayal of espionage. The other side of the 60s Cold War coin is, of course, John le Carré, writer of a plethora of gritty spy novels so much more grounded in reality than Bond, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of le Carré’s best.
The novel opens on aging spy Alec Leamas waiting at the West Berlin border for his best informant to cross the Iron Curtain. The informant is shot dead before they can meet and so ends a disastrous mission. It’s time for Leamas to ‘come in from the cold’ as Control, his boss, would say. Back in England, Control and George Smiley place him on one final act of espionage. He must fall into the hands of their enemies and convince them that their head of Intelligence is in fact a double agent. No short order, and matters are soon complicated when it seems that every other party has their own vested interests…
Le Carré writes with all the precision and insight one would expect of a man who has worked in Intelligence. Leamas is an engaging and entertaining anti-hero, broaching everything with the world-weary cynicism of a man whose job has all but destroyed every other aspect of his existence. The darkness, the inner turmoil and the sacrifice that must come of spies is explored in vivid depth through Leamas, and the mind games of both sides are utterly captivating.
Ultimately, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an accomplished thriller by one of the giants of the genre: an intelligent dive into a murky world where all morality has been abandoned keeping the reader teetering on-edge until the earth-shattering revelation that punches straight to the core. If you want smooth-talking, save-the-day reliability you can keep your Bond, but if you fancy a high-stakes undercover operation where all the dice are loaded, John le Carré is a must-read.