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This review is from: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (Paperback)
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is the quintessential cold war espionage novel. For four decades, this early LeCarre tale has served as the benchmark for 'spy thriller' writing. Reading it fresh in 2004, it's easy to see why.
Though THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD was only LeCarre's third novel, his strengths as a storyteller are fully evident here. The opening chapter alone serves as a narrative tour-de-force, swiftly and adroitly introducing the reader to the central characters, their impossible situation, and the hopeless, duplicitous world they inhabit. It is beautfully mirrored by the final chapter, in which the consequences of protagonist Alec Leamas' weakness becomes excruciatingly, tragically clear.
In terms of both style and structure, this early work seems to take its cues from Grahame Greene's '50s novels -- particularly THE QUIET AMERICAN. As in Greene, LeCarre's descriptions here are spare and succinct, with characters and situations quickly sketched in razor-sharp detail. Like Greene, this writer shows that sacrifice of innocents at the hands of arrogant ideologues has become mundane. He reveals the tragic complicity of all-too-human agents like Alec Leamas. Yet LeCarre does not share Greene's belief in personal redemption: His characters take it for granted that they live in an amoral labyrinth in which treachery and triple-cross are simply routine.
Economy and intelligence are hallmarks of this work. Dialogue is terse, sharp; plot complications are introduced with a minimum of fuss. LeCarre sketches his players deftly, in medias res, as they run the gauntlet. Consequently, this 224-page novel can be read in two sittings, yet its characters and situations seem fully realized -- and its tragic conclusion hits with tremendous impact.
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is an early work, by a writer still looking to more experienced hands for models. It would be almost a decade before LeCarre truly came into his own, with TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Still, it's clear that this novel is more than just a superlatively crafted 'spy thriller', more than just a classic of the genre. Forty years after its first publication, LeCarre's tragic tale has lost none of its power: THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD remains an extraordinary masterwork, by a supremely gifted and intelligent writer.