John Le Carre's disillusioned, cynical and spellbinding spy novels are so unique because they are based on a wide knowledge of international espionage. Le Carre, (pen name for David John Moore Cornwell), acquired this knowledge firsthand during his years as an operations agent for the British M15. Kim Philby, the infamous defector, actually gave Le Carre's name to the Russians. The author's professional experience and his tremendous talent as a master storyteller and superb writer make "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" one of the most brilliant novels I have read about spying and the Cold War. Graham Greene certainly agreed with me, or I with him, when he remarked that it is the best spy story he had ever read. The novel won Le Carré the Somerset Maugham Award.
The novel's anti-hero, Alec Leamas, is the antithesis of the glamorous action-hero spy, James Bond. A successful espionage agent for the British during WWII, Leamus continued on with counter-intelligence operations after the war, finding it difficult to adjust to life in peacetime. He eventually became the head of Britain's Berlin Bureau at the height of the Cold War. Leamus, slowly going to seed, drinking too much, world weary, had been losing his German double agents, one by one, to East German Abteilung assassins. Finally, with the loss of his best spy, Karl Riemeck, Leamus has no agents left. His anguish at Riemeck's death is palpable. He has begun to tire of the whole spy game, as his boss at Cambridge Circus, (British Intelligence), seems to understand.
Leamus is called back to London, but instead of being eased out of operations, called "coming in from the Cold," or retiring completely, he is asked to accept one last, dangerous assignment. "Control," the man Leamus reports to, asks him if he is up to "taking-out" Hans Dieter Mundt, a top East German operations agent and the man responsible for the deaths of Leamus' agents. The ploy is elaborate, and if successful, it will conclude with Mundt's own men killing him. With much planning Leamus convincingly changes his lifestyle and sets himself up as bait as a potential defector to the Eastern Block countries. As Leamus works efficiently toward his goal, two unexpected problems come-up - problems that he is unaware of until much later, when it is almost too late to resolve them. First, he falls in love with a young woman, a member of the Communist Party, who was supposed to be part of his cover, nothing more. And second, Control and the Circus have embedded plots within plots to further their end, which they don't see fit to reveal to Leamus - now operating in the dark. Le Carre portrays spying as a dirty game of acting, betrayal, lying, excruciating tension, and assumed identities. The espionage methods of East and West are the same. The only difference is their economic ideologies. There is a seemingly endless game of chess between the superpowers, and spies are as expendable as pawns.
This is a short novel, 219 pages, and very tightly written. However there is much packed into this bleak tale of the espionage business. The story has more twists and turns than a rollercoaster. And the ride is well worth it!