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The Cold War at its Coldest,
This review is from: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (Paperback)
A word of warning: "The Spy who Came in From the Cold" is not just an espionage thriller, it's a horror story.
British MI-5 agent Alec Leamas, the eponymous hero of John Le Carre's brutal little espionage masterpiece "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold", discovers that being a secret agent at the height of the Cold War is a little like being a man outside in the cold, looking in on the friendly warmth of home and hearth but unable to come in---so close, yet so far. His life depends on keeping up a charade, on cloaking his intentions and lying about his work. He can trust no one but himself, and he keeps an eagle eye on himself.
To make matters worse, a botched defection at the Berlin Wall sends Leamas's career into free fall, prompting his recall to London, a subsequent reassignment to a desk job in Personnel, and, simultaneously, the hatching of one of British intelligence chief Control's more byzantine little schemes: use Leamas's fall from grace as a means of ferreting out and destroying Hans Dieter Mundt, a high-ranking East German master spy and Leamas's shadowy nemesis.
To say more would be unfair to the reader. Le Carre, himself a former British intelligence officer, is perfectly suited to composing the elaborate, excruciating fencing match between London and Moscow that lies at the heart of so many of his best tales. The typical Le Carre protagonist and his handlers are not James Bondian pulp heroes with Union Jacks painted on the pommel of their 9MM Walther PPKs; instead, they tend to be bland, non-descript ciphers, poker-faced and cynical creatures who hide their machinations under bland exteriors.
"The Spy" is Le Carre at his deftest, and the Cold War at its coldest. Leamas is re-introduced into the world as a potential defector, but his ruse is haunted by the unexpected relationship with a British librarian he leaves behind in London. And really, the relationship, and the emotions it awakens in this grizzled Cold Warrior, is what makes "Spy" so compulsively entertaining and riveting: Alec Leamas wants to love and to reveal himself, just as his East German interrogator Fiedler wants desperately to believe in the purity of the Revolution and in the ideals of Communism.
But this is a Le Carre novel, and ideals and emotions are the luxuries of the dead or the doomed.
"The Spy" has the advantage of excellent pacing and deft characterization, and as with many of Le Carre's best novels, it manages to condense a considerable amount of treachery in a minimum of exposition. Le Carre is not only a good storyteller and a master at plotting out the grim duel between his spies, he is also a consummately gifted writer who uses words like a surgeon uses a scalpel. Best of all, "The Spy" is a nastily clever work, in which the plot turns in on itself suddenly and viciously, casting some light on a dark arena in which no one can be trusted.
"The Spy who Came in From the Cold" is a classic in espionage and a timeless literary masterpiece, but it is also a ruthless and jolting work whose cynicism is horrific. It is a bracingly good read and completely unforgettable.