John le Carre is today (almost) a household name. Even if the millions of books sold has not raised awareness, then it’s likely people are familiar with the several film and television adaptions of his books (The Constant Gardner being the most recognized?). Point blank: you cannot talk about spy novels without mentioning le Carre. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) is the novel that put his name on the map.
Alec Leaman is a down-on-his-luck British intelligence agent working in Berlin post-WWII, the Cold War in full swing. All of his contacts and potential informants turning up dead, he and his boss eventually decide it’s a good time to return to England and start something new. Blurring the line between reality and playing a role, Leaman is “kicked out” of the agency and forced to enter normal society in an effort to lure certain foreign agents out of the woodwork. The ploy eventually works, but at what cost? And what effect does it have on Cold War politics?
The ebb and flow of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold feels classic. Man experiences failure, goes undercover, gets into trouble, and… This story unravels, not in predictable fashion, but in familiar fashion. At about the halfway point the familiarity starts to fade as the plot thickens and the stakes ramp up, leading to a satisfying, dramatic conclusion. In terms of story, this is a proper spy novel.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an odd duck, in that it feels a product of its time but likewise transcends it. The details of setting, the style of writing, and characterization, all feel of their era—which is not a criticism. It is what it is, and can still be enjoyed for it. The core theme, however, remains relevant to this day. To say precisely why would spoil matters. What I can say is that undercover intelligence agents, like international waters, exist beyond the boundaries of their native polity. This allows them certain freedoms relative to their polity, but it likewise disowns them to a degree. Safety nets far away, agents are in the wild and essentially unassociated, despite loyalties they may have. Suffice to say, le Carre plays on this wonderfully while commenting on the polities.
In the end, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a book that exists at two levels. At the surface, it is a slow burning thriller with strong elements of subterfuge, intrigue, romance, and drama. For this, it should be in consideration for the classic spy novel. More sophisticated than James Bond, however, below the surface is a layer of commentary on British Intelligence and its treatment of agents, or at a minimum the sacrifices needed to exist in the world of international espionage. Regardless which level, the novel should be considered required reading for anyone interested in spy literature.