John le Carre was a spy for over a decade, working in MI5 (Britain’s domestic intelligence service) and MI6 (foreign intelligence service), during which time he began writing spy novels. That experience comes through in tone, message, and character development. He is known for writing more realistic, morally ambiguous, and nuanced spy novels than Ian Fleming’s bombastic Bond books. Le Carre also writes with surprising depth and weight. These spy stories aren’t about gunfights and dry martinis. They’re about asking tough questions, thinking carefully, examining loyalty and purpose, and struggling with lonliness and ambivalence. But they are still truly spy novels, with all the intrigue, action, and wheels-within-wheels one expects from the genre. His novels have been remade time and again into movies, including the recent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is the archetypal example of the exquisite spy novel that exists to plumb those deeper themes. It is le Carre’s third novel, and his breakthrough book. It is widely considered a masterpiece of the genre, and book club members agree.
From the first moody, now-iconic scene, we know that the protagonist, Alec Leamas, is on a downward spiral. He is huddled in a check station at the Berlin Wall, watching to see if there is any hope for his last operative to escape to the West, or if this is the moment of demise for the Berlin branch of MI6 that he heads. His operation has been systematically dismantled by his counterpart on the East side of the Wall, the brilliant Hans-Dieter Mundt.
Leamas is eventually recalled to London, where he is denied retirement, instead asked to go once more “into the cold”, posing as a defector to the Russians. From there the book becomes increasingly complex and engaging. What makes this book truly stand out is how masterfully le Carre handles each phase of this process. It’s not a simple thing. We witness Leamas’ complete disintegration as he settles into his new role as failed spy, ripe for turning. Later, the reader is treated to a wonderfully complex wheels-within-wheels plot, where the author asks profound questions about the value and purpose of espionage, and paints an unnerving portrait of moral greys, where all sides are both guilty and sympathetic, the innocent get sacrificed, and the moral answers are never easy.
Book club members universally enjoyed this book, as a complete work, and in specific set pieces as the different stages of the story unfolded. The espionage plot and counter-plot confused some club members, which may have been the author’s intent, but the merits of the book far outshone any flaws.
Next month we join an 11 year old boy as he and a handful of misfits take a fantastic ocean voyage in Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje. See our website, rhml.lib.mo.us, for details and future book picks. The Richmond Heights Memorial Library Book Club meets the second Thursday of each month, from 7 to 8 pm, at The Heights, 8001 Dale Ave. Please join us!