Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (John le Carré) (8.5/10.0)

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
You’d have to be a product of Generation Y not to love a good old Cold War spy story. No matter how many times I see or hear or read it, the ideological conflict as presented in the form of a dour-faced, steroid-pumping, muscle-bound Russki versus a hard-scrabble, street-smart, freedom-loving American is enough to bring back memories of bomb drills at school, a vision of Reagan declaring the Great Satan, and those epic Celtics/Lakers battles that defined a decade. All of us here at The Literate Man freely admit that we still pause in our channel surfing to watch long scenes (which we all know by heart) of Rocky IV, Red October, and Red Dawn, among others. Ah ... those were the days when gas was cheap and you knew who your enemies were or, more importantly, where your enemies were. It seems so long ago now.

What was I talking about again? Oh right, the novel. Sorry about that, I got lost in Cold War reverie.

So, I picked up my first le Carré novel, Absolute Friends, in the Frankfurt Airport on return from a visit to the former East Germany and the Czech Republic in, oh say, 2004. The novel chronicles the Cold War relationship of Mundy and Sasha, who work together to help MI6 bring down East Germany and eventually find themselves betrayed by the forces of globalization, which (as products of the Cold War, like me) they never fully understand. It was a very enjoyable book, and I made a mental note to pick up more le Carré as I was able. I saw the film adaptation of The Constant Gardner and I read Mission Song, both of which I enjoyed, though neither as much as Absolute Friends. And so, when my mother sent along a copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (thanks, Mom!), I thought it would be an enjoyable read and a trip down memory lane along the lines of what occurs when I watch any of the aforementioned Cold War movies.

I. WAS. BLOWN. AWAY. It was like I was that high-tech PPSI punch-measuring machine at the end of the Ivan Drago training montage in Rocky IV. This is—bar none—the best Cold War spy story we have ever heard, seen, or read. And I now understand why it was named one of Time Magazine’s All-Time 100 Novels. Ok, so about the story. It’s dark ... and I mean depths-of-the-human-soul dark, German winter solstice dark, Vito Corleone’s office dark, well ... you get the idea. Alec Leamas heads up the West Berlin office of the British Secret Service (known as the Circus), until his best double agent is killed, his leadership comes under severe scrutiny, and he is recalled to London. Then, in the Cold War espionage equivalent of a last-second, Hail Mary pass into the end zone, Leamas is fired, sent to jail, and hung out for defection like a slab of beef set dangling from the roof of a den of wolves (sound familiar, The Departed?). Anyway, the bait is taken, the trap sprung, and Leamas goes over the wall to East Germany, leaving the lovely (love interest) Liz behind with instructions not to try to follow him. His mission? To frame his counterpart, the East German Muntz, as a double-agent for the British.

I’d give you the rest of the story, but then there’d be no point in you reading it. And you need to read it. The plot is exquisitely crafted, with twists and turns aplenty, but it is the psychological realism in the context of counter-espionage that sets the book apart from anything I have ever read on the subject. Le Carré does an excellent job of describing the amorality practiced on both sides of the Berlin Wall (and the English Channel) in the name of idealism. My advice? Turn off that rerun of The Hunt for Red October (as good as it is—I love Sean Connery as a Russki, I don’t care what his accent is) and get your hands on a copy of this book. Do it now, comrade.


  1. I'm in! I've never read le Carre, but I suspect he'd be a rather huge upgrade from the crappy Vince Flynn "spy" novels I'd been bringing with me to kill time on planes.

    And, actually, I think I had about as much fun reading your review as you seemed to have reading the novel!

  2. I read this not long ago and had the same rapturous praise for it! I am glad you enjoyed it!

    Do not, I repeat, do not be fooled into watching the film adaptation starring Richard Burton. It is so mind-numbingly dull, I had to turn it off! We need a modern day redux. I hadn't thought about the connection to the Departed. It was on the other night and I almost watched it again. I will have to do so now.

  3. Hi Greg--You definitely need to pick up le Carre. It's like another level altogether, at least that's the case with The Spy. As for the others that I've read/seen, they're superior to your run of the mill spy novel, but nothing that will blow your mind.

    Thanks, Leah. To be honest, I think it was your review that turned me back on to it (I actually read it about a year or so back). I appreciate the warning on the film as well!