‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ (1963) was John le Carré’s third book and his breakthrough novel. Together with Len Deighton’s ‘Ipcress File’ published a year earlier, it changed the tone of spy fiction, moving away from the glamorous image of espionage created by Fleming and, to some extent, Graham Greene, towards something grimly seedy, morally bankrupt and totally credible. Le Carré made the Cold War real, stripping it of its ideological trimmings and displaying it for the covert but ruthlessly brutal conflict that it was.
Le Carré worked as a British Intelligence Officer in the early 1960s, in Bonn and Hamburg. His career ended a year after ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ was published when the double agent Kim Philby gave the names of British agents to the KGB. This first-hand experience may explain the confident mastery of an insider’s view of a secret world that makes ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ seem so authentic.
Although I’ve read many of Le Carré’s later spy novels, I’ve never read his Cold War stories before. His later stories seem to me to be sophisticated, a little world-weary and totally unromantic but his main protagonists, usually men of few illusions, still find a way to muddle through and at least mitigate disaster. ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ isn’t like that. It is unremittingly bleak. It’s clever, so clever that I didn’t see the twists coming, but it’s also fundamentally repugnant. There are no heroes in this book, just players and the people being played and you don’t know who is which until the novel ends. The novel is as compelling as a slow-motion car wreck, you know it won’t end well but you can’t look away.
Some of the grimness is simply a reflection of England as it was in the early 1960s, still struggling to achieve more than survival seven years after the end of the war. Some of it comes from a brutal Realpolitik that placed national interest ahead of ideology or personal integrity. Class also plays its part. Alec Leamas, the spy of the title, is, from the point of view of people who run the security service, ‘not one of us’. He didn’t go to the right schools. He’s not a member of the right clubs. He is valued only to the extent that he is successful. If he stops being successful, he will lose all value. That Leamas knows and accepts this only makes everything more depressing. Leamas is a man who does not value himself. He’s resilient and persistent but more from an ingrained habit of aggressive belligerence than from any belief in change. I didn’t like Leamas but I understood him and believed in him completely. As a character, he’s a remarkable achievement.
The plot of ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ is fiendishly clever both in its content and its exposition. Even when I knew the outcome I found myself staggered by the depth of deception and the ruthlessness of the execution.
The only false note in the story for me was Elizabeth’s love for Alec Leamas. I could see that the plot required it but I struggled to believe it. Partly that was because I couldn’t see what there was about Leamas that attracted her. He was significantly older, emotionally withdrawn, secretive, bad-tempered, sometimes violent and often drunk. What was the appeal? I felt that, by comparison to the portrait Le Carré painted of Leamas, Elizabeth was little more than a pencil sketch, an accessory rather than a person.
Even so, most of the novel was strong and it has encouraged me to read the rest of the Cold War books.
I listened to the audiobook version, ably narrated by Michael Jayston. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.