Thursday 28 February 2013

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré: a Review (Gollancz, 1963)

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.


  1. Just found your blood via the Lewes blogroll. All very interesting. John le Carre has been the inspiration for some fine modern authors like Alan First, but he still has a unique place doesn't he.

  2. Nice to meet a fellow East Sussex booklover, Tom; I've just updated my blogroll with your fine site – which, I see, like Existential Ennui, has been archived by the British Library. Although I've just noticed they don't seem to have updated the version of EE on the UK Web Archive site since October 2011. I must drop them a line and give them a nudge.

  3. I've always thought this one's the better thriller but that Tinker is the better novel. The follow-up novel, which also has Smiley's 'spectral' presence, is a good read as well. I read an edition (LG War) with an introduction by Le Carre where he was proud it wasn't TSWCIFTC part 2, despite its middling contemporary reviews. Again, Control is pulling the strings in diabolical fashion.

    The two novels that follow that are probably his weakest but then there's the triumphant 'Tinker'.

  4. The Man Who Was George Smiley: The Life of John Bingham by MIchael Jago has just been published.

  5. I've approved the above comment as it does have some relevance and might be of interest to regulars, but perhaps next time, Anonymous, you could at least feign some interest in the post itself.

    Chris (UK edition): I think that's fair comment on Spy vs. Tinker. I have a copy of The Looking Glass War, but I'll give le Carre a rest for the moment – three novels in quick succession is enough, I think, enjoyable – and thought-provoking – though they were.

  6. I don't think Liz is portrayed as the prime reason for Leamas' downfall. Leamas was condemned by Control, with the help of Smiley. Liz' idealism is what did for her, and le Carre seems to hate idealists as dangerous types who put lofty principals before human life. Can't help but agree. Still, a tragic ending and one that stayed with me for a long while after reading.

    I would recommend not giving le Carre a rest just yet, and continue on to The Looking Glass War. it's not one of his most popular but it does a grand job at examining the petty and grimy world of British Intelligence in an age of austerity.

  7. Really enjoyed the post Nick - deep down I think I still prefer this one to TINKER TAILOR, probably because as you poinbt out so well, Smiley is less obviously heroic and is this unusually ambivalent figure in the background of Control's plans.

  8. Thansk for the reply. I've added you to my blogroll also. UK Web Archive seems to be fairly erratic. I expect some sites are archived only every year or two. For a book review site like mine that seems to be plenty.

  9. I agree that TTSS ranks above TSWCIFTC. I don't find that to be much of a prevailing trend, though, even after the TTSS movie. People still seem to always rank this one as le Carre's best. And it IS a great novel. It might even be a better SPY novel than TTSS, though TTSS is the better novel, I think, to echo Chris's "thriller" comment.

    How involved do you think Smiley was in Control's plan, Nick? I get the impression that despite his protestations (which are generally related second hand), he's up to his neck in this plot. There are just too many of those spectral appearances you mention for him NOT to be! The counter argument I hear a lot is that that throws off his later arc towards embracing his more ruthless nature in Smiley's People, but obviously le Carre hadn't planned that trilogy yet at this point.

    I strongly concur with Tim that it's well worth reading The Looking Glass War while these other Smiley novels are firmly in your memory. It's underrated but very good - and very darkly humorous as well.

    I know they keep talking about doing Smiley's People as a follow-up to the TTSS movie (which of course I want to see happen!), but I'd actually really like to see a remake of TSWCIFTC at some point with Oldman cameoing as Smiley and John Hurt playing Control at his most devious. Hurt really managed to steal the show in TTSS, and this is Control's shining moment. Give it a few more years and I think Daniel Craig would actually make a great Leamas. I picture Keira Knightley as Liz, staying true to the age difference presented in the book.

  10. Ta for the comments, everyone. Tim: no, Liz isn't the prime reason, but she is instrumental, I'd say – and especially so right at the climax, if we're in a literal frame of mind! Tanner: yep, Smiley's up to his neck in it, for sure, as culpable as Control. But in his defence, he is at least present at the climax at the Wall, which I think is meant to demonstrate that he does care about Leamas. Although probably in the same way he "cares" about, say, Connie in the Karla Trilogy: he's still perfectly prepared to use him.

    And okay, okay: I'll CONSIDER reading Looking Glass War sooner rather than later. I dunno: talk about peer pressure!