Customer Review

5.0 out of 5 stars It May Be Time for You, Too, to Reread This Book, May 25, 2010
This review is from: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Paperback)
"The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," (1963) was the third book by British author John LeCarre,the pen name of Englishman David Cornwell, a prolific, much-honored, best-selling author of spy novels. During the 1950s and early 1960s, he had worked for the British Secret Services: MI5 , which deals with domestic British matters; and MI6, which deals with international espionage. He then began writing under the pseudonym "John LeCarré," (French for "John the Square") as employees of those agencies were not permitted to publish books about their employment. "Spy," was an international best-seller that enabled him to quit his day job; it remains his best known work to date, and he has said that "The Spy," is his favorite among his works. He's also well-known for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and Smiley's People.

Throughout his early career, the author was mentored by Graham Greene, another Englishman of long life and long writing career, who was also able to call upon his personal experience of the espionage trade in writing his many successful spy novels. But Greene was also great friends with the notorious Kim Philby, a double agent, and defend him throughout their lives. Greene, in fact, is often quoted as having once said that if ever he had to choose between his country and his friend, he hoped he would have the courage to choose his friend. Philby was a high-ranking member of British intelligence who was a spy for, and later defected to, the Soviet Union. And, before his 1963 exposure and defection, Philby had exposed LeCarre, who was then, as Cornwell, stationed in Bonn, behind the Berlin Wall/Iron Curtain. LeCarre was able to get out in time, but it was a close call; and his career in the field was over. He was lucky that "The Spy," took off just then.

The book gives us an encyclopedic look at the wintry U.K. at the time, and the freezing, divided Germany. The divided city of Berlin, which the author has called a spy's paradise, and its infamous, menacing wall, separating west from east, that's virtually the star of the book. "Spy" concerns Alec Leamas , returned to London and MI6, the Secret Service, after failing in his last German mission. Control offers him a desk job, but Leamas prefers to go back into the field. So Leamas must first seem to sink into alcoholism, violence and debauchery and get himself in trouble with the law. And, after his short jail sentence, he takes a job from the Labour Board, given him by a civil servant he seems to recognize from the spy biz, in an odd little backwater library. There he meets and hooks up with Nan Perry, assistant librarian, a naïve Communist camp follower. He's done all this in an effort to attract the attention of the opposite side, and that he does. He's soon back in Germany; his actual, secret mission, to protect an --unknown to him --British counterspy. And, somehow, Nan is also there. LeCarre's most famous character creation, George Smiley, who had appeared in the writer's two earliest books as a detective of sorts, finally appears in "Spy" as a high-ranking officer of MI6.

The book that runs a swift and vivid 250 pages, is an accurate snapshot of a particularly significant place at a particularly portentious time, and, though it's surely a downer, is likely to stand quite a while yet. It's already outlived that hated, menacing Berlin Wall.

Throughout LeCarre's long career, his grounding in the actual day to day business of spying has been one of his greatest strengths, but he is also an excellent, terse and witty writer, skilled in plotting, writing narrative, description, and dialog. He has the knack, which you can see in "The Spy," of being able to both open and close his narratives with riveting set pieces. In this book, the writer opens with his protagonist Leamas anxiously awaiting the crossing by an agent of his of the Berlin Wall; he closes with Leamas himself trying to cross the (now, mercifully, long-gone) wall. Mind you, the writer has often worked in the German-speaking world, and has set many of his books there: he is evidently comfortable with the language.

The spy novels of John LeCarré are an unglamorous response to the James Bond thriller genre established by Ian Fleming in the mid nineteen-fifties. LeCarre's cold war work shows men who are not heroic,who know the amorality of their work. They have few grand action thriller moments, few sexy gadgets, and practice only the violence necessary to move the plot -- the dramatic conflicts are character driven. LeCarre's characters lack the moral certainty of Fleming's British Secret Service adventurers; his spy stories are morally complex. They show the reader the weaknesses of the Western democracies and the secret services protecting them, and often imply the moral equivalence of east and west. "New Yorker" writer Malcolm Gladwell has written that he rereads "The Spy" every three years, and discovers new riches within. "The Spy," written while LeCarre was actually in residence in then-contemporary Germany, went far in establishing him as the greatest literary spymeister of the age. It may be time for you, too, to reread this book.
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