Review of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)


John le Carré (writer).

Read in 2022.

Read in Swedish.

Alec Leamas, a British spy on the edge of burnout, is roped into an extended operation to discredit a ruthless East German counterspy. It turns out that the operation to counter the counterspy is itself inverted, in that the story Leamas tries to sell to the communists is true, although Leamas himself is told it’s false.

The plot is convoluted like a silly murder mystery and the characters are pretty thin. The significance of this novel lies in the way that Le Carré makes out both sides in the Cold War to be similarly ruthless. This is better than a masturbatory fantasy where (only) your own side’s spies are morally good, but it lends itself well to cynicism and the vicarious enjoyment of the thriller plot as a mere spectacle.

Le Carré does not retreat to individualism or fantasy. The novel is much more tasteful than The Stainless Steel Rat (1961), and Leamas never tastes the rewards that James Bond did in Dr. No (1962), adapted from Fleming’s novel. Nevertheless, Leamas is a competent, pragmatic badass and Le Carré wants the reader to identify with the badass, against the society of his friends and enemies. It’s frustratingly atomic.

It is symbolically correct, in that regard, that the true purpose of Leamas’s operation is to have the communists disbelieve the truth. That is precisely the effect of portraying all parties as assholes, even for the purpose of getting readers to focus its work on the peace movement like the everyman character, Liz. I get the sense that Le Carré knew what he was doing, which is ultimately more than the typical spy thrillers of the time.

text fiction