Having recently read and reviewed John le Carré's first two novels – Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) – it seemed only right and proper that I should tackle his third one too: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. For one thing, it's arguably le Carré's most famous book (although in recent years it's perhaps been surpassed by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as a result of that later novel's 2011 film adaptation); for another, it's widely regarded as his best (although, as brilliant as it is, for my money Tinker is the better novel); and finally, it's actually a sequel of sorts to Call for the Dead – so with that novel still fresh in my mind, what better time to pluck my 1963 first edition (second impression) of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold from the shelves and give it a go.
As it turns out, it's quite a different novel to its two predecessors. Both Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality have an element of the murder mystery to them – much more so in the latter, but that strand of DNA is certainly present in the (largely espionage) genetic makeup of Call. In any case, both are very much reactive novels – British Intelligence operative George Smiley investigating the death of a civil servant and an attendant East German plot in the former, and the rather more down-to-earth death of the wife of a schoolmaster in the latter – whereas The Spy Who Came in from the Cold could be characterized as proactive. Here, the plot is propelled by the machinations of the Circus (MI6) and its head, Control, who hatches a plan to take revenge on Mundt, the East German agent-cum-assassin-turned-Abteilung bigwig who murdered two people in Call (and almost did for Smiley as well).
Furthermore, Smiley isn't the star of Spy. Instead, the man tasked with carrying out Control's fiendish scheme is Alec Leamas, a washed-up operative whose chief East German agent is killed at the beginning of the book. Leamas's assignment is to make himself into a candidate for recruitment by East German Intelligence, a goal which entails him hitting the bottle, getting kicked out of the Circus and even being sent to prison for assault. The one chink of light in this dark descent is Liz, a young librarian who becomes his lover, and who will prove instrumental both to his mission, and in his eventual undoing. (Interestingly, not the first time, nor indeed the last, that a woman will be the downfall of a man in a le Carré novel.)
But although Smiley, supposedly still retired after the events of Call for the Dead, doesn't feature much in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he's a spectral presence throughout. Control enlists his (reluctant) aid in concocting the plan, and he haunts the novel like a portly ghost: glimpsed by Leamas in a greasy spoon and at an airport kiosk; paying Liz a visit with Peter Guillam. He also pops up in the final scene, which brings the action full circle to the East/West Berlin border, but the true climax of the book comes just prior to that, and takes the unexpected shape of a courtroom drama – never my favourite form of fiction, but deployed effectively here by le Carré to lay bare the machinations of Control and the Circus and deliver a final twist which throws a new and awful light on those endeavours.
In the end, le Carré leaves us questioning not only whether the ends justify the means, but whether the ends are desirable either – questions which have as much resonance – as much relevance – today as they did fifty years ago.