review published on January 23, 2014. Reviewed by Erin Britton
With the Cold War at its most frosty, Alec Leamas, former Station Head of the West Berlin office of the British Intelligence Service, is sent back to London in disgrace after his best asset is assassinated during a botched defection. Things look bleak for Leamas but Control, mercenary head of the Circus, believes that he could still be good for one last job. Leamas is to be dismissed from the Service and is to make his dissatisfaction with his former employers clear so that he might seem ripe for turning by foreign agents. Leamas should then be able to prove useful to his country once again by slipping falsified information to the East German Communists that Hans-Dieter Mundt, a high-ranking and vicious remember of their security service, is in fact a double agent working for the British.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is another excellent espionage thriller from John le Carre and offers a master class in how to pull off the double (triple? quadruple?) cross on both characters and readers. There is no pretence as to glamour or righteousness in the spying game as portrayed by le Carre, both sides in the Cold War being equally willing to deceive and sabotage the other – to say nothing of a willingness to sacrifice their own people – and Alex Leamas’ last mission is a particularly murky one. The story is starkly written, the twisting, turning plot is completely without padding, leading to a sort of literary harshness that echoes the ethical ambiguity at the heart of the book.
Leamas himself is clearly a burned out, morally bankrupt character as his career in Berlin comes to an end but he is given a chance to reform himself, in some part at least, when Control sends him back out into the field. Although he is under no illusions as to the work he does and the kind of people he works with, Leamas does begin to see that he could have the chance of a normal-ish life out of the “cold” even if circumstances seem to be working against him. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold also introduces one of le Carre’s best female characters in the shape of Liz Gold, idealistic Communist librarian and Leamas’ love interest. While definitely an outsider in the spy world, Liz ends up playing a far greater role in the Mundt affair than anyone expected and she rises to the occasion even when clearly terrified and befuddled.
Several of le Carre’s regular Circus operatives also have a role to play in Leamas’ mission. George Smiley and Peter Guillam are both instrumental in setting up the operation against Mundt even if Smiley is more dubious than ever about the morality of the Circus’s work. It is also their actions that result in Liz Gold becoming more embroiled in the plan than might have been anticipated and, for this reason, Smiley’s own choices and morality remain questionable. Of course, it’s not only his own side that Leamas has to worry about: Mundt is a cold, terrifying foe and there is a strong sense of danger about the mission from the very beginning.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of the best, most calculatingly brutal spy stories by a master of the genre. The story speeds along as the intrigue and double-crosses mount up until Alec Leamas finally understands his place in the espionage game and John le Carre delivers a final damning indictment of the intelligence community.