The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carre (1963) 258 p.

Although I’m not a reader of spy fiction I’d naturally heard of John le Carre, the world’s most famous and best-selling author in the genre, and because of the name I’d always assumed he was French. Turns out it’s actually the pen name of English author David Cornwell, who was naturally forced to assume an identity because he was basing his novels on all sorts of secret stuff when he was working for the British intelligence services in the 1950s and 1960s. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is probably the best-known espionage novel of all time, challenged only by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, also one of le Carre’s.

The book is a classic story from the early, nasty days of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall had only just gone up and many Western agents suddenly found themselves trapped in the East. The novel begins with Alec Leamas, the fifty-something chief of British intelligence in West Berlin, waiting at Checkpoint Charlie for the attempted escape of one of his spies from the other side. The spy is shot dead – the last of a ring that had been targeted in recent months – and with no more agents in the field, Leamas is recalled to London. There, partly to find out how the East Germans managed to uncover so many of their operatives, and partly out of sheer revenge against them, Leamas and his handlers construct a complex triple agent scheme which will see him falsely defect to the East.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is set in 1963, but this is the early 1960s, before the Beatles and hippies and free love and Vietnam. This 1960s is far more like the 1950s: cold, grey, bleak and austere. Rationing from WWII had only recently ended in England, and the war itself was still fresh in everybody’s mind. There is a palpable sense of conflict and tension, of a world being on the brink of war. It’s easy to look back and think that the Cold War, all in all, didn’t turn out too badly, but hindsight is always 20/20. Another turn of events could very easily have seen Europe torn apart again. The most interesting thing about The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is that despite so clearly being a relic of its time, it also feels very modern, because of how cynical and nihilistic it is. The novel’s overall theme is that the West’s methods are incompatible with its ideals, and Communism certainly isn’t presented in a positive light; but the spies on both sides of the Iron Curtain are portrayed as ruthless and amoral, part of a deadly game which has terrible emotional and personal consequences for them, ultimately having more in common with each other than with the citizens they’re supposed to be protecting. It’s very common now, in the age of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, to look back on the Cold War with a sort of nostalgia – a time when the line was clearly, literally drawn, when the ideologies were on a level playing field, when the soldiers wore uniforms. Nowadays, presenting intelligence work as morally murky is par for the course; take the Bourne movies, for example, in which the CIA is presented as a monolithic villain. But for its time, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold must have been very shocking.

Unfortunately, as a product of its time, it’s also deeply sexist, and not in a way that can be overlooked like in the works of John Wyndham. One of the novel’s major characters, Liz, is a woman in her early twenties. Apart from plot reasons, she’s mostly in the book to serve as a symbol of innocence and purity, which le Carre might get away with if not for the fact that this goes hand in hand with writing her as a silly, weak, impressionable, hysterical child, who falls easily and desperately in love with Leamas, as though there was never any question that she would fall for the first man to move into her orbit, and without anybody ever seeming perturbed by their gross age disparity. I don’t like to be too critical of the politics of writers who were merely products of their time, but this was really one of the most irritatingly sexist books I’ve read in a while.

Other than that, though, it’s a solid novel. A little bit too complicated – a lot of characters that go by generic surnames, a lot of doublecrossing and a lot of information withheld from the reader at critical junctures, but I suppose that’s the nature of the genre. It’s a moody, atmospheric work that I enjoyed a fair bit, even though I think it’s one of those books that’s famous for being an influential landmark rather than a particularly great novel in and of itself. I liked it enough to read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy somewhere down the line.