The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre

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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre

Category: Crime
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: A washed-up agent comes in from the cold, only to be sent out on one final mission. A brilliantly evoked vision of the nightmare of Cold War espionage, gripping and thought-provoking. Probably the Best Spy Novel Ever Written.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-0340993743

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The Spy who Came in from the Cold was John le Carré's 'break-out' novel, the book that brought him international acclaim, and which Graham Greene hailed as the best spy novel he had ever read. But is it a book that has stood the test of time? For this reader the answer is a definite yes (despite some annoying typos in this edition).

Set in the early 1960s, soon after the Berlin Wall began to go up, The Spy who Came in from the Cold is the story of Alec Leamas, a British agent who is nearing the end of his career. Leamas runs the Berlin office but he has lost a number of agents recently. When one of his best agents tries to escape to the West, Leamas watches helplessly as the East German border guards gun him down at the checkpoint. Leamas is recalled to London, and thinks he has finally come in from the cold. But Control persuades him to undertake one final assignment, provided he is not too 'fatigued'. The assignment is to bring down Mundt, the anti-Semitic head of East German Intelligence who was responsible for the deaths of his agents. Leamas agrees to the mission.

If Leamas were Bond he would now be kitted out with several clever gadgets and sent off to Berlin in a lounge suit and a sports car. But this is le Carré, not Fleming. Leamas' cover is established over months. He is demoted, distrusted, disgraced. He turns to drink and is sacked. Embittered and impoverished, he reaches his lowest ebb when he is sent to jail for assaulting a grocer. When he is eventually released from prison he is ripe for recruitment by the other side – especially as along the way he had had an affair with Liz Gold, a Jewish girl who also happens to belong to the British Communist Party.

As with his earlier novels, le Carré expertly evokes the atmosphere of the times. The depiction of the seediness of early-sixties under-belly London reminded me very much of Patrick Hamilton's depictions of 1930s under-belly London. But there's the added tension of a tale of espionage, of double-cross, of not knowing who is telling the truth and who is lying. It is a murky world all right, full of amoral morality and self-justifying treachery. As everything falls into place in East Berlin, the full extent of the sordid truth gradually emerges.

This book is an undoubted page-turner, psychologically complex and layered with twists, and at the same time it explores some complex issues. Can political systems influence human nature? If the 'good guys' adopt the tactics of the 'bad guys' how can they still be the 'good guys'? Do the ends really justify the means? At the root of it all, of course, is love and betrayal. Especially betrayal.

The blurb on the back quotes J. B. Priestley: Superbly constructed, with an atmosphere of chilly hell. I would add that it is a terrific read, too. It really is the Carlsberg of espionage fiction: Probably the Best Spy Novel Ever Written.

Highly recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

John le Carré's Call for the Dead first introduced a number of the characters in this novel and fills in the backstory superbly. For real le Carré fans there's the oddity of a George Smiley whodunit, A Murder of Quality.

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Buy The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre at


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