Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: Great Read In A Bomb Shelter

Patrick started us off on a Cold War bent a few weeks ago and since then it’s been nothing but bomb drills, Radio Free Europe, and non-stop Rocky IV marathons here at The Literate Man (TLM). If the Cold War was good for anything it was spawning an avalanche of spy novels. And the book that started it all, the epicenter of TLM's shameless Cold War nostalgia, was John le Carré ‘s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.

This was the first le Carré Novel I had ever read. I have since picked up a second and could not agree more with Patrick’s spectacular praise for this book (thanks again to Patrick’s mom). After he sang its virtues I simply had to read it. And it was even better than I imagined.

This is not your father’s spy novel. There’s no run-away submarines, buxom Ukrainian agents or narrow avoidances of nuclear annihilation. This is a story about spies and spying and the horribly normal people who carried out this dirty war. And still, after nearly half century later, is the standard bearer for the spy novel.

Leamus, the main character in this book is an unassuming man of apparently extraordinary abilities. But he’s a simply a pawn in a bigger game who’s dimensions keep unfolding with every turn of the page. He is the focus of this book and while there are others involved (mostly his higher ups, the men pulling the strings on either side of the trenches) this is his story. Picture Graham Greene with a souped-up story line and a bit less focus on style and this is what le Carré has given us with in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

That’s not to say that this is more poignant than Greene’s classic works or that they reach the reader on a deeper physiological level, it’s simply that this book is written on a far higher plain than almost every other spy thriller that it can only be compared to work like Greene’s (Greene himself had high praise for this book). And yet at the same time its plot twists are reminiscent of the most exciting books of this genre.

The characters couldn’t be more unassuming if they tried and it might sound crazy that a book with no action, boring characters and drab locales could be a spy thriller; it’s like the Seinfeld of spy novels: a book about nothing. But the pace zips in this story and aside for about an 8-page section in the middle where it seems as though le Carré ( a former spook and admittedly in the midst of a great deal of existential doubt in his personal life when he wrote this) slides into a bit of a rant, the prose is taught and the plot line even tighter. From first page to the last you are blinded by a cascade of double crossing that paints a much grander and undeniably absurd picture. As a whole this is not only a fast-paced and engaging plot it’s also a powerful commentary on the absurdities of the Cold War itself.

The highest praise for this book might be that it defies convention. It delivers the best of a fine piece of well-crafted literary fiction as well as the unorthodox, but nonetheless, racing plot of a thriller all in one. There is little doubt that you will walk away from this book feeling well satisfied.

9.5 out of 10


  1. Ashamed to say that I've still only seen the movie. My mom actually loved le Carre, but I never caught the bug. This is perpetually on my "to read" shelf but I never quite make it around to reading it.

    Coincidentally, I'd love to hear your thoughts on Ulysses thus far. A personal favorite and a great novel for anyone, but especially for men given the mythical overtones of Bloom and Daedalus.

  2. Great Cold War read! I too was shocked by the book - it seems so of the moment because it is all psychological.

    I feel sorry for rarelydusty for sitting through the movie! I couldn't do it. They completely lost the suspense of LeCarre.

    On a cold war note, found a great cold war love song earlier this week: Josh Ritter's The Temptation of Adam. Simply perfect writing.

  3. @rarelydusty - I'm really curious as to what type of movie The Spy would make. If it didn't jazz you, though, I think I won't tarnish my love of the story with an inferior remake.

    So, we have some explaining to do at TLM. There are really three of us now: Patrick, Greg, and Aaron. We should be posting and reformatting the blog soon to make all that clear. In any case, this was Aaron's review and I (Patrick) am reading Ulysses at the moment. I have to say that I am really enjoying it. It's definitely work, but the work is punctuated by these pleasurable periods of reward, when you can really see Joyce's genius and the mythical nature of the characters really shines through. I'm not sure when I'll be ready to review, but it will definitely go up over the next several weeks. In the meantime, I think Aaron has some fairly strong thoughts about Ulysses as well ...

  4. Actually the movie was quite good (in my opinion, perhaps because I didn't read the book before). Richard Burton as Alec Leamas was his usual excellent self (nominated for a Best Actor Oscar if I remember correctly) and it was nominated for a fair number of other awards. The strength of the movie (put in the context of being produced in 1965, aka in the midst of the Connery period of the 007 films) was the bleak, grimy, more realistic portrayal of the intelligence industry. I thought it was great, but maybe I'm a sucker for B&W spy movies. Different strokes for different folks.