CBR IX: 1
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
What can be said about John le Carré that hasn’t already been said. It’s over fifty years since this novel was published. It’s fifty years since Richard Burton starred in the film adaptation. And like all influential reads it feels like you’ve read it before even if you haven’t. For some this is a problem, for me I just sat back and enjoyed the experience.
Every spy film or book aiming for legitimacy tries for this level of tension and detail. Even if le Carré admits there’s little veracity to it. Dogged since publication by claims that it’s true le Carré points out in the appendix that as he was working for the British government at the time that anything true in his novel would not have been allowed to be printed. Conspiracyistists would say that’s what he wants you to think.
The plot concerns a West Berlin station chief, Alec Leamas. He loses his job and tries to make himself into an attractive asset for the East Germans to try and turn. In doing so he’s trying to get revenge for how many of his assets have been killed and fish out leaks on the British side. The novel goes from Berlin, to the mundanity of a British library and back to the other side of the Iron Curtain. Needless to say this is a suicide mission. And needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) all is not as it seems.
You know what you’re going to get with le Carré, ludicrous attention to detail and a real antidote to the wham, bam, thank you mam, action shenanigans of Ian Fleming. (Although the sections at the Berlin Wall are very reminiscent of The Living Daylights short story). When there’s too much detail he can be stodgy and slow the story. When he’s successful, as he is here, the ratcheting of tension and the setting of scene can be quite breathtaking and evocative. They lend the novel the sort of legitimacy that it has spent its publication running away from.
Guaranteeing that you’ll enjoy this novel as much as I did would be hyperbole but I can say that the reading experience was one of those rare moments where the economy of language, the speed of the story and the world it’s building click together to make reading effortless. Those moments when the words appear in your head with little or no interface error on the way in are few and far between. They’re some sort of bliss. This book was easy and a delight in that way.