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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley Novels) Paperback – September 3, 2013
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Frequently bought together
“The best spy story I have ever read.”—Graham Greene
“First-rate and tremendously exciting.”—Daphne du Maurier
“Le Carré is one of the best novelists—of any kind—we have.”—Vanity Fair
“Written…with a pitiless, elegant clarity. The Spy who Came in from the Cold is a first-rate thriller and more.”—Time
About the Author
- Publisher : Penguin Books; 50th Anniversary ed. edition (September 3, 2013)
- Language: : English
- Paperback : 240 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0143124757
- ISBN-13 : 978-0143124757
- Item Weight : 8 ounces
- Dimensions : 0.63 x 5.45 x 8.24 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #7,757 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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It begins with a scene of maximum tension at the Berlin Wall. Alec Leamas, a British agent responsible for a network of spies in East Germany who are being rounded up, is waiting in a checkpoint in West Berlin, hoping that the last of his agents will be able to escape. After that agent gets shot down before his eyes just before crossing the border, Leamas retreats to London in a fog of bitter disillusionment.
The rest of the novel narrates an increasingly complex plot hatched by the Circus, the British spy agency Leamas works for, to recover from the elimination of their spy network by getting back at the German spymaster responsible - Mundt.
The plot begins with Leamas acting the part of a disgruntled agent, shortchanged for his service to his country and vulnerable to defection. He is contacted by agents for East Germany and agrees to supply them with information, but not before he takes a job in a library where he meets and becomes lovers with Liz Gold, a character who will come to represent the innocent bystanders who get pulled into the world of morally questionable espionage with tragic results.
Almost everything that happens in this novel is morally questionable on both sides and that is what provides a good bit of the intellectual stimulation of the book. John Le Carre always keeps the big picture ideology within the frame of the story by having his characters invoke Communist ideology alongside ideas of Democracy. Without going too deeply into political science, politics is always a reasonable topic of conversation here whether it’s pillow talk between Alec and Liz or a discussion of their greater mission between Alec and his Communist counterparts.
But Le Carre’s focus is always on real people and he loves to explore the way that the idealism of the East and the West get twisted and distorted in their effects on both those spies who must compete aggressively for their “side” as well as the innocent people who are just doing their jobs. At one point Alec refers to this as “turning the plan into people,” in other words, to achieve some results in intelligence work, agents must be used and people will die and these deaths flatly contradict the western democracies’ ideological support for the freedom of the individual.
These moral concerns fit neatly into a novel which is full of betrayals and double-crossings. The way information is doled out as the plot unfolds changes the way you see the characters and what you make of their motives but it all circles back to the Berlin Wall and an ending which parallels the opening.
Leamas’s bitterness proves to be wholly justified, but his downfall is brought about by his inexplicable hunger for “operational life.” His embittered attitude is perhaps most directed at his own profession, one to which he is drawn like a magnet. Of spying he has this to say: “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” It’s a great diatribe which encapsulates the mood, the atmosphere, the tensions, and the overriding philosophy of this novel.
Coming in from the cold has many meanings here. Leamas comes in from the cold when his East German network gets wrapped up and he flies back to London, he comes in from the cold when he leaves the Circus to work at the library as a discarded alcoholic former spy, he comes in from the cold when he agrees to sell information to the East Germans, and finally he comes in from the cold when he ends up back at the Berlin Wall in the final scene. With shifty characters, a torturous plot, and a warm core of humane sympathy this novel is an entertaining and philosophical spy novel for the thinking reader.
Lovers of spy stories should be warned that this is not the fantastic world of James Bond nor the incredible action tale of a Jason Bourne. Mr. le Carre's novel is dark and moody, and takes the time to allow readers to thoroughly absorb each scene. Although it is not a 300 or 400 page book, it is not a book to be read quickly or skimmed. If you do, you will miss out on key elements of the story and the ending will have a different impact for you.
The last part of the book picks up the pace, and the twists and turns are unexpected, jarring, yet totally believable. The last chapter of the book is not your typical ending, yet it encapsulates the mood of the entire story. Not to be missed is the "Fifty Years Later" section, an introduction to the book written by the author for the 50th anniversary of the initial publication. It is amazing that the novel many folks feel is the ultimate spy story was viewed by Mr. le Carre as just the opposite. Sorry, no spoilers here...it is an interesting addition to the book, and I encourage everyone to read that before beginning the book. Five stars.
And many of the early books are not available in kindle or audiobook format that I prefer. So I picked up The Spy Who Came In From the Cold because it is the earliest of the series on audiobook, it is before Tinker Tailor and many people think it is le Carré’s best book.
I like spy books. There is something that both meets my needs for action and fast moving plot, and also some cerebral content that is more than many action books.
le Carré is known for writing cerebral spy novels. So while he has intrigued me, I have been a bit intimidated by the books. Most people that don’t like them say they are too slow or to cerebral. When I finally started this I listened to it straight through in just over a day. (It is only 7 hours.)
le Carré is a pen name for an actual British spy. He was not allowed to write under his own name for security reasons. The weaknesses of the spy world and the mind bending planning of a spy to double or triple cross either your bosses or your enemies are realistic in feel.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is primarily about a spy that is either trying to double or triple cross the East Germans. Throughout the book you think you know what is going on, but you are never quite sure that you really have the whole picture.
The ending is unconventional. It is not what I expected from a spy novel and I think that is why many reviews suggest that this book really changed the way that we think about spy novels. It was le Carré third novel and its success allow him to leave MI6 and become a full time author (in 1963).
If you like spy fiction and have not read le Carré this seems like a good place to start. I will move on and read some more of his books over the next couple months. (I have since read about 10 books by le Carre and I still think this is the place to start for him.)
Top reviews from other countries
It is the story of Alex Leamas, a senior British agent working in Berlin. When his network is blown and his key agent is killed he returns to a desk job in London. From there he goes rapidly downhill, being dismissed for misconduct before finding a dead end job in a library, assaulting a shop keeper and being sent to prison. On the way he becomes involved with the innocent Liz.
Except that isn't the real story, it is all an elaborate plan for Leamas to defect in order to dicredit a senior figure in East German intelligence.
At the very top level, the Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an intricately plotted espionage thriller full of unexpected plot twists. However, to view it thus is to do it a disservice. To describe it as having a twisting plot suggests a mechanical, formula driven work. In truth it is a novel of subtle ambiguity which feels like walking through fog, which occasionally clears, giving a different perspective on the story.
To describe it as a thriller suggests good guys and bad guys fighting their way to a clear denouement. In fact it is a book painted in shades of moral grey. All of the characters, east and west, are human, flawed,and utterly believable. The core of the book is a single moral question. Can the good fight be fought using the tools of darkness. It is the same theme as Le Carre returns to in Smiley's people.
This is marketed as the third Smiley novel, but in truth he barely features, although his influence is all pervasive.
Here we meet Alec Leamus, who losing his best intelligence source from East Germany is called back to the Circus. Whilst there a plot is created to what looks like bring down the serving head of the East German Secret Service. Thus Leamus takes to his new role, whilst all hope that things will go according to plan.
We thus read of what happens next, and as it starts to dawn on Alec, perhaps he is in way above his head with subtleties appearing and other inconsistencies in the plot. Le Carré is clever here in that although this seems to be an easy read there is a lot of complexity to the story, as he reveals only bits of the plan as we go along, leaving us as much in the dark as Leamus. This works very well as it gives us an appreciation and feel for the paranoia and unease that you would expect from such a situation, when you start to discover that what you think is planned isn’t quite the whole story.
Raising the question of whether the good guys should behave in a much better and grander way than the bad guys, this is still something that is discussed continually and no doubt will be for evermore. It is given then a feeling of authenticity and becomes believable as this is a tale not of black and white, but of grey, and let’s face it there are lots of things that fall into a grey murky world all around us.
In all then this is always a joy to read, showing the complexities, morals and ethics that are raised in something like Intelligence work and wars, and the price that has to be paid. This is then quite deep and thoughtful and would probably make a good choice for book groups.
George Smiley was introduced in Call for the Dead in 1961. He returned in 1962 in A Murder of Quality, his only story set outside the intelligence community. Then, in 1963, comes the masterpiece: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which remains the best spy story I have ever read (I agree with Graham Greene). It is a recognition of the quality of Le Carré’s writing that I could remember the book so well, almost quoting some passages verbatim.
The story relates a complicated act of deadly triple-bluff created by the British Secret Service against its enemies in the German Democratic Republic, the Abteilung. Alec Leamas is at the centre of the plot - believes he is on a clever undercover mission of revenge but clever British brains have other motives… Le Carré laces the plot with multifarious complexities as Leamas comes to realise that he has been used by his own side - fooled, manipulated and misinformed. Leamas has travelled deep into the heart of Communist Germany, ostensibly to betray his country. Smiley tries to help the woman, Liz Gold, that Leamas has befriended with devastating consequences…
The Spy… is a dark, brutal, totally believable tale of espionage during the Cold War. Spies, summed up by Leamas to Liz Gold: ”What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs…” This is a terminally fatigued Alec Leamas and the ending of the story still leaves me devastated.
In order to bring Leamas to East German attention, the Circus sacks him and Leamas ends up working in a run-down library, where he embarks on an affair with a young Party member, Liz Gold. What unfolds is a clever, convoluted plot, where nothing is as it seems. Slowly, the trap is set and we follow Leamas from London, back across the curtain into East Germany.
Although this is listed as one of the Smiley series, George Smiley appears only briefly in this novel. However, you are always aware of him in the background and of his relationship with Mundt, from the very first book. Leamas is an interesting character, while Liz adds the touch of innocence, in this world of espionage, which underlies the personal cost – not only to her, but to those who work in the murky work of spying.
Like all classics, this book works because you care about the characters and what happens to them. Le Carre captures perfectly a time, and a place, and inhabits that world with confidence. I look forward to continuing the series and reading all of Le Carre’s backlist.