The 50th-anniversary edition of the bestselling novel that launched John le Carré’s career worldwide
In the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall, Alec Leamas watches as his last agent is shot dead by East German sentries. For Leamas, the head of Berlin Station, the Cold War is over. As he faces the prospect of retirement or worsea desk jobControl offers him a unique opportunity for revenge. Assuming the guise of an embittered and dissolute ex-agent, Leamas is set up to trap Mundt, the deputy director of the East German Intelligence Servicewith himself as the bait. In the background is George Smiley, ready to make the game play out just as Control wants.
Setting a standard that has never been surpassed, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a devastating tale of duplicity and espionage.
About the Author
New York Times bestselling author John le Carré (A Delicate Truth and Spy Who Came in from the Cold) was born in 1931 and attended the universities of Bern and Oxford. He taught at Eton and served briefly in British Intelligence during the Cold War. For the last fifty years he has lived by his pen. He divides his time between London and Cornwall.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Checkpoint
The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, "Why don't you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up."
Leamas said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.
"You can't wait for ever, sir. Maybe he'll come some other time. We can have the polizei contact the Agency: you can be back here in twenty minutes."
"No," said Leamas, "it's nearly dark now."
"But you can't wait for ever; he's nine hours over schedule."
"If you want to go, go. You've been very good," Leamas added. "I'll tell Kramer you've been damn' good."
"But how long will you wait?"
"Until he comes." Leamas walked to the observation window and stood between the two motionless policemen. Their binoculars were trained on the Eastern checkpoint.
"He's waiting for the dark," Leamas muttered. "I know he is."
"This morning you said he'd come across with the workmen."
Leamas turned on him.
"Agents aren't aeroplanes. They don't have schedules. He's blown, he's on the run, he's frightened. Mundt's after him, now, at this moment. He's only got one chance. Let him choose his time."
The younger man hesitated, wanting to go and not finding the moment.
A bell rang inside the hut. They waited, suddenly alert. A policeman said in German, "Black Opel Rekord, Federal registration."
"He can't see that far in the dusk, he's guessing," the American whispered and then he added: "How did Mundt know?"
"Shut up," said Leamas from the window. One of the policemen left the hut and walked to the sandbag emplacement two feet short of the white demarcation which lay across the road like the base line of a tennis court. The other waited until his companion was crouched behind the telescope in the emplacement, then put down his binoculars, took his black helmet from the peg by the door, and carefully adjusted it on his head. Somewhere high above the checkpoint the arclights sprang to life, casting theatrical beams on to the road in front of them.
The policeman began his commentary. Leamas knew it by heart.
"Car halts at the first control. Only one occupant, a woman. Escorted to the Vopo hut for document check." They waited in silence.
"What's he saying?" said the American. Leamas didn't reply. Picking up a spare pair of binoculars, he gazed fixedly towards the East German controls.
"Document check completed. Admitted to the second control."
"Mr. Leamas, is this your man?" the American persisted. "I ought to ring the Agency."
"Where's the car now? What's it doing?"
"Currency check, Customs," Leamas snapped.
Leamas watched the car. There were two Vopos at the driver's door, one doing the talking, the other standing off, waiting. A third was sauntering round the car. He stopped at the boot, then walked back to the driver. He wanted the key. He opened the boot, looked inside, closed it, returned the key and walked thirty yards up the road to where, midway between the two opposing checkpoints, a solitary East German sentry was standing, a squat silhouette in boots and baggy trousers. The two stood together talking, self-conscious in the glare of the arclight.
With a perfunctory gesture they waved the car on. It reached the two sentries in the middle of the road and stopped again. They walked round the car, stood off and talked again; finally, almost unwillingly, they let it continue across the line to the Western sector.
"It is a man you're waiting for, Mr. Leamas?" asked the American.
"Yes, it's a man."
Pushing up the collar of his jacket, Leamas stepped outside into the icy October wind. He remembered the crowd then. It was something you forgot inside the hut, this group of puzzled faces. The people changed but the expressions were the same. It was like the helpless crowd that gathers round in a traffic accident, no one knowing how it happened, whether you should move the body. Smoke or dust rose through the beam of the arclamps, a constant shifting pall between the margins of light.
Leamas walked over to the car, and said to the woman, "Where is he?"
"They came for him and he ran. He took the bicycle. They can't have known about me."
"Where did he go?"
"We had a room near Brandenburg, over a pub. He kept a few things there, money, papers. I think he'll have gone there. Then he'll come over."
"He said he would come tonight. The others have all been caught -- Paul, Viereck, L”ndser, Salomon. He hasn't got long."
Leamas stared at her for a moment in silence.
A policeman was standing at Leamas' side.
"You'll have to move away from here," he said. "It's forbidden to obstruct the crossing point."
Leamas half turned.
"Go to hell," he snapped. The German stiffened, but the woman said:
"Get in. We'll drive down to the corner."
He got in beside her and they moved slowly down the road to a side turning.
"I didn't know you had a car," he said.
"It's my husband's," she replied indifferently. "Karl never told you I was married, did he?" Leamas was silent. "My husband and I work for an optical firm. They let us over to do business. Karl only told you my maiden name. He didn't want me to be mixed up with...you."
Leamas took a key from his pocket.
"You'll want somewhere to stay," he said. His voice sounded flat. "There's an apartment in the Albrecht-Dürer-Strasse, next to the Museum. Number 28A. You'll find everything you want. I'll telephone you when he comes."
"I'll stay here with you."
"I'm not staying here. Go to the flat. I'll ring you. There's no point in waiting here now."
"But he's coming to this crossing point."
Leamas looked at her in surprise.
"He told you that?"
"Yes. He knows one of the Vopos there, the son of his landlord. It may help. That's why he chose this route."
"And he told you that?"
"He trusts me. He told me everything."
He gave her the key and went back to the checkpoint hut, out of the cold. The policemen were muttering to each other as he entered; the larger one ostentatiously turned his back.
"I'm sorry," said Leamas. "I'm sorry I bawled you out." He opened a tattered briefcase and rummaged in it until he found what he was looking for: a half bottle of whisky. With a nod the elder man accepted it, half filled each coffee mug and topped them up with black coffee.
"Where's the American gone?" asked Leamas.
"The CIA boy. The one who was with me."
"Bed time," said the elder man and they all laughed.
Leamas put down his mug and said:
"What are your rules for shooting to protect a man coming over? A man on the run."
"We can only give covering fire if the Vopos shoot into our sector."
"That means you can't shoot until a man's over the boundary?"
The older man said, "We can't give covering fire, Mr...."
"Thomas," Leamas replied, "Thomas." They shook hands, the two policemen pronouncing their own names as they did so.
"We can't give covering fire. That's the truth. They tell us there'd be war if we did."
"It's nonsense," said the younger policeman, emboldened by the whisky. "If the allies weren't here the Wall would be gone by now."
"So would Berlin," muttered the elder man.
"I've got a man coming over tonight," said Leamas abruptly.
"Here? At this crossing point?"
"It's worth a lot to get him out. Mundt's men are looking for him."
"There are still places where you can climb," said the younger policeman.
"He's not that kind. He'll bluff his way through; he's got papers, if the papers are still good. He's got a bicycle."
There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited, in front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war.
That damned woman, thought Leamas, and that fool Karl who'd lied about her. Lied by omission, as they all do, agents the world over. You teach them to cheat, to cover their tracks, and they cheat you as well. He'd only produced her once, after that dinner in the Schürzstrasse last year. Karl had just had his big scoop and Control had wanted to meet him. Control always came in on success. They'd had dinner together -- Leamas, Control and Karl. Karl loved that kind of thing. He turned up looking like a Sunday School boy, scrubbed and shining, doffing his hat and all respectful. Control had shaken his hand for five minutes and said: "I want you to know how pleased we are, Karl, damn' pleased." Leamas had watched and thought, "That'll cost us another couple of hundred a year." When they'd finished dinner Control pumped their hands again, nodded significantly and implying that he had to go off and risk his life somewhere else, got back into his chauffeur-driven car. Then Karl had laughed, and Leamas had laughed with him, and they'd finished the champagne, still laughing about Control. Afterwards they'd gone to the "Alter Fass," Karl had insisted on it and there Elvira was waiting for them, a forty-year-old blonde, tough as nails.
"This is my best kept secret, Alec," Karl had said, and Leamas was furious. Afterwards they'd had a row.
"How much does she know? Who is she? How did you meet her?" Karl sulked and refused to say. After that things went badly. Leamas tried to alter the routine, change the meeting places and the catch words, but Karl didn't like it. He knew what lay behind it and he didn't like it.
"If you don't trust her it's too late anyway," he'd said, and Leamas took the hint and shut up. But he went carefully after that, told Karl much less, used more of the hocus-pocus of espionage technique. And there she was, out there in her car, knowing everything, the whole network, the safe house, everything; and Leamas swore, not for the first time, never to trust an agent again.
He went to the telephone and dialled the number of his flat. Frau Martha answered.
"We've got guests at the Dürer-Strasse," said Leamas, "a man and a woman."
"Married?" asked Martha.
"Near enough," said Leamas, and she laughed that frightful laugh. As he put down the receiver one of the policemen turned to him.
"Herr Thomas! Quick!" Leamas stepped to the observation window.
"A man, Herr Thomas," the younger policeman whispered, "with a bicycle." Leamas picked up the binoculars.
It was Karl, the figure was unmistakable even at that distance, shrouded in an old Wehrmacht macintosh, pushing his bicycle. He's made it, thought Leamas, he must have made it, he's through the document check, only currency and Customs to go. Leamas watched Karl lean his bicycle against the railing, walk casually to the Customs hut. Don't overdo it, he thought. At last Karl came out, waved cheerfully to the man on the barrier, and the red and white pole swung slowly upwards. He was through, he was coming towards them, he had made it. Only the Vopo in the middle of the road, the line and safety.
At that moment Karl seemed to hear some sound, sense danger, he glanced over his shoulder, began to pedal furiously, bending low over the handlebars. There was still the lonely sentry on the bridge, and he had turned and was watching Karl. Then, totally unexpected, the searchlights went on, white and brilliant, catching Karl and holding him in their beam like a rabbit in the headlights of a car. There came the see-saw wail of a siren, the sound of orders wildly shouted. In front of Leamas the two policemen dropped to their knees, peering through the sandbagged slits, deftly flicking the rapid load on their automatic rifles.
The East German sentry fired, quite carefully, away from them, into his own sector. The first shot seemed to thrust Karl forward, the second to pull him back. Somehow he was still moving, still on the bicycle, passing the sentry, and the sentry was still shooting at him. Then he sagged, rolled to the ground, and they heard quite clearly the clatter of the bike as it fell. Leamas hoped to God he was dead.
Copyright © 1963 by Carré Productions
Copyright renewed © by David Cornwell
What People are Saying About This
“The best spy story I have ever read.”—Graham Greene
“First-rate and tremendously exciting.”—Daphne du Maurier
“Le Carré is one of the best novelists—of any kind—we have.”—Vanity Fair
“Written…with a pitiless, elegant clarity. The Spy who Came in from the Cold is a first-rate thriller and more.”—Time
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Excellent novel, great story, incomparable style of John le Carre, joy to read. especially for someone who is at least a little bit interested in the post-war history of Europe. The only reason why I didn't give the book 5 stars is the abundance of cartoon stereotypes in descriptions of East Germans: a big dumb woman guard, sadistic officers, jew haters, etc. - all more suitable for a bad Hollywood movie than for a novel of a master, but the book is still one of the best in the genre.
This rates up there with 'the Quiet American' as the greatest spy literature. If your looking for an easy book-with easy solutions then don't read this book. However if you are someone who likes to look beneath the surface, if you want to look at some ugly truths of the network of spies--then definitly read this book. What might not be known to most readers, is that it is based on a much larger, much more destructive true story perpetrated by the CIA against Eastern European countries in the late 1940's-early 1950's called 'operation Splinter Factor' (there is a book by that title but I think its out of print, there is however a section on it in William Blum's excellent and heavily researched book 'Killing Hope:US Military and CIA Intervention Since World War 2').
It's as good as they say.
Good spy story but sad.
The best Cold War spy novel ever written.
I read this book about three years ago (at the writing of this review), and it is still one I think about often, and quite fondly. It is certainly dark, hopeless, and cold, but intentionally so, and it tells one of the finest stories I've ever read, in any genre. I do not have an extensive collection of spy fiction, so it is quite probable that there are better spy books out there than this one. But I haven't found them yet.
Alec Leamas, British spy handler, has suffered a series of setbacks at the hands of his arch-enemy, the East German, Mundt, and is ready to retire. When Alec¿s boss, Control, asks if he wants to go on one last mission to shut Mundt down, Alec agrees and, ¿the plot thickens.¿ It sounds funny, but I enjoyed the size of this book. It was a relatively short book, just over 200 pages, but there was a lot packed into those pages. This is a spy story, though not an action packed spy story. Instead it is a riddle that slowly unwinds itself. Trying to figure out who is telling the truth and who is on whose side is the fun of reading it. Having said that, sometimes I think my mind was too old to keep up. The clues are very subtle¿like spywork should be¿and I had to read a synopsis after I finished reading it to help me pull it all together. That made me mad (and made me feel inadequate) because I should have been able to figure it all out myself. Like I said, I am getting old.The book was written in 1963 so it is almost as old as I am. In a way it seemed dated. The characters, Cold War warriors each, struggle with the ideas of right and wrong, good and evil, morality and immorality in the service of a cause. Do the ends justify the means? They spend a lot of time parsing that through. Nearly 50 years later it seems like we don¿t even bother wondering any more. The answer is always, sadly, yes.
It's been a long time since I first read this, in high school. It didn't make as big an impression on me as the George Smiley novels did - it's much less epic, more subtle, I think. I'm reading books that were published in my birth year so when I found that this was one of them I put it on the list. I'm glad I did, it's a very different book when read as an adult. Maybe it's just that I'm in the same part of my life as the main character, Alec Leamas - I understand his growing and vague sense of dissatisfaction, of time running out before you get to do that one really cool thing. le Carré can write - there is no doubt of that - and his novels written during and about the Cold War are mostly brilliant. I've never been a huge fan of the James Bond-type spy novels. I much prefer the notion that le Carré lays out - of a game grounded in utter pragmatism, its heroes largely unsung. The game as it is presented in these books has no clear answers, no clear victories, nothing, but ambiguity stacked on ambiguity - that's what makes these brilliant.The Berlin Wall came down when I was in grad school. Throughout my earlier life it loomed there in the distance, a place where desperate people were killed by their own governments, where families were separated by an ideology made real through stone and barbed wire. These days it's easy to forget what that might have been like, but le Carré definitely captures that in this book.Spare, cynical, dispassionate, and utterly tragic this book lays the groundwork for the George Smiley books that followed. It's a wonderful read.
I don't read spy novels, but I've always been curious about John le Carré and chose this as my sample of his work. He identifies it as one of his best, and it's hailed as a classic. I can see why.I've almost no experience with the genre, so my only basis of comparison is James Bond. The differences are obvious. James Bond is a no-nonsense superman who any man can idolize, the 'ideal spy' in a black-and-white world. Alex Leamas, on the other hand, is an everyman, just trying to do his job and hating it a good amount of the time. He gets fired from a senior posting, only to receive a second chance as an undercover operative. He has to go to extremes to establish this cover that would be far below Bond's dignity, and must resign himself to his role as expendable pawn in an enormous game he doesn't understand the full workings of.Alex has no special gadgets at his disposal, and he can't fight his way out of his problems. He shies away from discussion about right and wrong because it makes him uncomfortable. He recognizes his enemy is a mirror image of himself. He feels the toll his work takes on his life, he feels the sacrifices, and he knows fear. With James Bond, we wish we were in his shoes. With Alex, we're very glad we're not. That difference made this novel a hit when it was published in 1963, hailed as a landmark for its very human and realistic portrayal of unglamorous international espionage that probably opened a lot of people's eyes. Maybe someone who reads contemporary spy thrillers will find nothing unique here, since I'd imagine it must have set a template for many acts to follow, but it will always remain a quick read and well told story.
Mere hints of what le Carré will become.
The book gets off to a gripping and suspenseful start. At the height of the Cold War around 1962, veteran British operative Alec Leamas waits for one of his agents to cross the East German border. He can only watch as the man is gunned down before his eyes within feet of making it across. With that death, the East Germans have succeeded in unraveling his entire network.Brought back to England, Leamas is convinced to do one more job. He's dangled as bait, presented as apparently broken and bitter, in the hopes their communist adversaries will entice him to defect and swallow what he has to tell them. I've been reading a recommendation list for suspense novels, including several spy thrillers, and I've read a couple of dozen, leaving Le Carre for almost last precisely because so many have told me his works are among the best. If The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is any evidence, I'd say that's right. Along with Alan Furst (Night Soldiers) and Eric Ambler (A Coffin for Dimitrios) Le Carre is both the most plausible in his depiction of espionage and among the strongest in a literary sense. It's not surprising he'd be credible. Along with Ian Fleming of the James Bond novels, he's one of the few such writers who can claim actual experience--he worked in British Intelligence for years, and in his introduction he tells of how he saw the Berlin Wall go up.Alec is no James Bond though--and I like him the more for it. This isn't some escapist male fantasy where being a secret agent allows you to indulge in gorgeous women on your arm as you gamble high stakes at casinos and consume caviar and champagne. Alec is around fifty years old, disillusioned and close to burnt out even before this mission. The woman he gets involved with, Liz Gold, is no glamorous Bond girl, but a hopelessly naive idealist whose very innocence points up the ruthlessness of the game as played by both sides. This is much more intricately plotted than any of the other espionage fiction I read. Seeming plot holes close up and become plot points and there's enough twists and turns to satisfy a fan of Christie. Don't expect a black and white morality or characters or a happy rainbow at the end though.
The novel that brought John Le Carre to the international spotlight, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is one of the best spy novels ever written. With its realistic portrayal of espionage (not always at its finest) and Le Carre's own experience contributing, this is a must read.The story of veteran spy and Berlin section chief Alec Leamas' last operation starts with his supposed punishment and demotion to a low level clerical job and builds up to alcoholism and 30 days in jail for assault before being "recruited" by an East German team as a double agent.Leamas' (and his superiors') true motives though are to take down Mundt, the high-ranking official in the Abteilung (East German Intelligence) responsible for the death of every single double agent handled by Leamas.The novel moves along swiftly, with many twists to keep readers intrigued and make the operation even more mysterious. And with arguably one of the most powerful final scenes in literary history, this gritty and realistic look at the world of Cold War espionage is a definite must read that I would recommend to every one looking for a cerebral thriller or what Graham Greene called, "The best spy novel I have ever read."
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is both brilliant and fascinating, even if it tends to fall apart towards the end of the story. The first half of the book uniquely captures the darkness and cynicism of the Cold War years, as rendered by a writer in possession of some unique angles on that great drama. The latter half of the book is less interesting, featuring a rather drawn-out trial sequence that is frankly quite dull, and burdened with a romantic subplot that feels patched onto the main narrative. Nonetheless, this book may yet be the best spy novel ever written, and certainly worth a read for those who have never experienced the works of John Le Carre.
This was a tough read.....enjoyable in the same way you'd enjoy a hard workout at the gym. Glad I got through it. And the author went to Sherborne School - hurrah!
Alec Leamas is a world weary secret agent for British counter-intelligence, working out of Berlin. He has been running a network of agents in Berlin for many years, very successfully, but recently things have been going wrong, and when his last agent is shot and killed trying to crossover into the West, he returns to England. His boss, Control, asks him to do one final very important (and very dangerous) assignment, a devious plan designed to result in the death of the powerful head of East German intelligence. Leamas agrees...I'd heard a lot about John Le Carre, and seen many of his books in the library and bookshops. His name seems to be synonymous with the spy novel, and so when I found this early book in a charity shop, I just had to buy it. I wasn't disappointed. The book is very tightly written. It's a short book, weighing in at just over 200 pages, but there's a lot of plot packed into those pages. Very little words are wasted on long description and narrative, but Le Carre still manages to convey very well the bleakness of the espionage business and the cold war era. The story is very clever, but I won't say any more for fear of giving away spoilers. I couldn't decide whether to give it a 4.5 or a 5. In the end I went for a 5, because while there are a few novels I've enjoyed more, there are very few I've been more impressed by.Note - this is John Le Carre's third novel, but it's generally considered his 'breakout' novel, the first of novels to gain siginificant popularity and acclaim.
This book is deserving of the mantle of ¿classic¿ bestowed upon it. It takes the spy story, strips it of glamour and infuses it with the moral ambiguity of the real world. Its prose is bleak and spare, the characters repressed and uncommunicative. The surroundings reflect the characters who reflect the necessities of the intelligence universe. In basic plot, it follows Alec Lemas, an intelligence operative once in charge of the West Berlin operations on behalf of Britan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When the last useful agent he had in East Germany is shot, he is recalled and seemingly goes to seed, the only brief light in his life being a brief relationship with a librarian Liz Gold. There are plot twists within plot twists as there must be in setting up the ultra-sophisticated dance of intelligence and counter-intelligence. Some twists you¿ll see coming, some you might not. This book is a reflection of the times. Some things are surprising now: the passivity of the female character, the emotional repression, the anti-semitism. However, some things are as important today as ever: the killing of good men simply because they happen to belong to the ¿other¿ side, the dichotomy between ¿doing a job¿ and being motivated by ideology, the horrible things done, justified or not, in the name of national security. The book is very slim, and packs a lot of material in a short amount of space. I¿d recommend it to just about anyone ever interested in the darker side of the often thrilling and glamorous espionage genre.
Not much else needs to be said about this classic novel of Cold War espionage. Le Carre elevates the genre and set a new standard of expectation for what a spy novel could be.Our "hero", Alec Leamas, has recently been recalled from Germany after his entire network of spies in the Communist bloc has been rounded up and eliminated. Expecting to retire in disgrace, Control, instead, has other plans. Leamas and the reader eventually realize that they cannot discern the true plans Control has and the actual point of his mission. Leamas becomes a double agent, sent to infiltrate the East German intelligence service on a mission that becomes more abstract as additional information is revealed. To spill more would be a disservice.The spooks and their masters have real human emotions and backstories. They are not just characters to be manipulated in service of a plot. That is where Le Carre excels beyond the average spy story. Rather than engaging in elaborate, globe-spanning, exotic conspiracies, this novel is rooted in realistic depictions of a dirty, but necessary, craft.Needless to say, if you're a fan of spy fiction, especially the work of Alan Furst, you've probably read this already. If you haven't, you owe it to yourself to do so immediately.
This book is as good as what its reviews claim it to be. It's suspenseful, well-constructed, gripping like a good novel should be, and has a sad but appropriate ending. I particularly liked the chapter (second last) where it got philosophical about spies doing what they do: how we as a society sees spies because they are often portrayed as heros (although this is not explicitly discussed) versus how spies actually operate because they live in a dangerous world doing dangerous things, both real and non-glorified. The troubling thing is that we often find ourselves interested in agents that come from the "good-guy" side. We root for them. Cheer when they get their way, and applaud when they triumph at the end because, as all stories should, the good guy should win at the end. In reality there's just two sides being at war, doing whatever it takes to crack the other side.Along the way there are casualties.
The best of Le Carre, though, I'm sure I'm influenced by the film with Richard Burton too.
This is an ok book. I thought I would like it a lot more because I really like spies. It lacked action. It was ok and all, just not for me.
Extremly good. This book is a real spy story, dense with content and twists. The characters are very believable too. Far from the thrillers published today.
Considered to be one of the best spy thrillers of the modern age, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the the novel that put John le Carré's on the best-seller list (and essentially he's there to stay. Given this fantastic piece, it is well-deserved. Published in 1963, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was le Carré's third novel, but the first espionage thriller of its kind -- namely, the first with the painfully realistic notion that there is no "good" or "bad" side in a conflict and no one is particularly moral or just when it might come at the expense of victory.Alec Leamas is a burned-out English spy enduring his final mission so that he might "come in from the cold" and retire after a long career in the British Secret Intelligence Service. This chance comes shortly after Leamas's stint as commander of the West Berlin office where he witnessed his last decent agent get shot trying to escape East Berlin. Now, his job is to destroy his own life and give the illusion of a washed-up agent ill-used by his superiors so that he might appear to be a man who's very willing to defect to the East German Communists and sell them information. Leamas is a pro and he plays his role well -- except he does what it seems like every spy does... he gets involved with a girl. Liz Gold is a young Jewish woman who works at a library, a registered Communist who falls hard for Leamas, even though he tries to push her away (though he doesn't try very hard). Whether Leamas falls in love with Liz or simply develops an affection for her, no one should be too surprised if Liz becomes a liability in the high-stakes game that he's playing. Before diving headfirst into his dealings with the East German Communists, he makes Liz promise to not try and find him and similarly asks his British superiors to leave her alone. Yeah. Sure.To say too much about the plot would be criminal, so I'll simply note that it's all quite worth reading. It's so refreshing to find a novel where things move quickly and the author doesn't pander to a slow audience. I actually wondered at the beginning of the book if I was going to be quick enough to follow along with everything, particularly considering my Cold War knowledge is a bit rusty, but it turned out I had everything I needed to know. The thing that's fascinating now is to be familiar with the jaded concept that neither side is "right" in a conflict, but to see the origin of this idea in the novel that best brought it to light in terms of the modern age. Clearly, this is no James Bond novel where he easily bests the bad guys in the name of Queen and country while sleeping with sexy women and drinking martinis. Leamas is a grizzled case who's been in the field for much too long and he's beyond disillusioned with it all... and yet still, he might retain his own understanding of honor. He's lived a cover for so long that who knows what is "true" and it takes a woman from the outside to prove that not everything is about lies and subterfuge... but such a perspective can hardly survive the onslaught of underhanded dealings. There is, indeed, a real villain in this story, but an individual's blackened soul doesn't necessarily represent an entire country, particularly when the only other true idealist with a good dream to improve the lives of his people is on the exact same side. Leamas, despite being disillusioned with it all, still does seem to have some moral understanding and perhaps that's what draws him to naive Liz.My book club read this at the suggestion of a member who is writing her own spy novel and so has been immersing herself in fiction and non-fiction that pertains to the topic as research. Perhaps an unlikely choice, it made for some great discussion as we dissected the motives of various characters and sighed over just how annoying Liz was. (Seriously, it's painful how useless and frustrating she was in the face of everything.) There was a movie made of this novel that a few o
I've heard this described as the greatest spy novel ever, and since I've recently taken a liking to spy novels, I was anxious to read this one. The book was published in 1963, the height of the the cold war, and the story takes place at about the same time. Alec Leamas is a British spy serving in Berlin who returns to London after another of his operatives is killed, this one while crossing the checkpoint at the Berlin Wall. Once back in London, Alec is given a desk job in the banking section, then dismissed after an irregularity is discovered in the accounts. He is a failure at civilian life, not able to keep a job, falling behind on his bills, and finally ending up in jail after assaulting a shop keeper. On the day he is released from prison, he is approached and recruited back into "service". This book is much different than the more modern novels I've been reading, leaving quite a lot unsaid, even at the end. I felt like I never quite knew what was going on - there was layer upon layer of deception, and it was impossible to tell what the truth was. Even in Alec's first person thoughts, I couldn't be sure whether he was lying or "telling" the truth. I'd like read more by the author, and other authors from the time, before deciding whether I like them as well as more recent books.
I'm not sure how much I can reveal about the plot without spoiling it completely, so I'll play it safe. This is a pure spy mystery involving agent Leamas, fired by the Secret Service for failing to protect his agents properly and given only a minimal pension. He quickly falls into hard drinking and major debt, then lands himself in jail. The day he comes out of jail, he's approached by a stranger and is eventually taken to East Germany to deliver intelligence gathered in the years working for the British service. There is eventually a trial held by the communists during which it comes to light that everyone might be guilty of double and triple-crossing, and seen through the prism of totalitarianism and paranoia, all we've been told till then might be a complete fiction. I was expecting to enjoy this novel more than I did, especially considering the fact that I enjoyed the first two George Smiley novels quite a lot, but maybe I'm not such a big fan of spy novels after all? At one point it all got too confusing and convoluted for me to care much, but looking at the overall construction, it's a very good book and I can objectively say I can see why this is such a popular story and might appeal to such a large audience.
I'm embarrassed about giving this only three stars when I know it's a classic of the genre, but it felt very dated to me, and I find spy books confusing, and I thought the hero was too James Bondish to be true. But it earned its stars by persuading me that it was a gripping story in the heart of the Cold War, very well written and atmospheric. But I prefer his later books.