The Spy who came in from the Cold (let’s just call it ‘the Spy’) was John le Carré’s third novel. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Spy is very much a product of its time (though with recent events unfolding that assertion may be called into question). Published in 1963, the Cold War was entering a new phase, a year in which the US agreed to set up a hotline with the USSR, and JFK delivered his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
I’m familiar with the Spy, having seen the 1965 movie, starring Richard Burton, on a handful of occasions. I was reticent therefore about reading the book. I generally prefer to read the book before I see the movie. While wary of knowing the plot, and having Richard Burton’s face imprinted on my vision of the central character of Alec Leamas, I thought it worth reading. The Spy has classic status in spy fiction and at just over 200 pages in length it was never going to be a huge investment of my time.
On the death of one of his agents, Alec Leamas, our spy, returns to London from Berlin. While tired of a life in the shadows, Leamas isn’t quite ready for seeing out his career behind a desk. He is persuaded by Control to be the final thrust in a plot to destabilise East German Intelligence through his playing the role of defector and false intelligence provider.
It’s a fairly bleak book. You can almost feel the London drizzle on your face and the sound of tyres on wet roads. If a book could be in black and white, it’s this one. But that’s high praise. The character of Leamas is nicely drawn even if some of the other characters around him aren’t quite as realistic nor the relationships forged. Perhaps this is a consequence of Spy being a fairly short book with quite a plot to get through.
The Spy has plenty to keep you engaged, and enough atmosphere to shake the proverbial stick at. There’s a great twist as well which makes you realise and appreciate, in a Count of Monte Cristo way, how well put together and constructed the book and plot is. Spy is highly recommended, as is the movie. Just try and do it in that order!