Alec Leamas is Britain’s chief intelligence officer in Berlin, but when his best German spy is blown and killed while trying to defect, Leamas quickly starts a remarkable downfall. Reassigned to a desk job at the Circus (le Carré’s fictional branch of British intelligence) Leamas starts drinking heavily and racking up debts. When he is caught stealing funds from the office coffers, he is fired without much of a pension. With his reputation sullied he is reduced to working in a small library and living in a deplorable apartment. The other side smells blood in the water.
Of course, that’s all part of the plan. Leamas’s downfall has been carefully orchestrated by Control, the anonymous head of the Circus. The idea is to get the Soviets to think that Leamas is desperate enough to turn traitor and use him as willing bait in order to get back at the East German spy chief, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Mundt has been extraordinarily successful at wiping out British spies, and the Circus is out for revenge.
However, once Leamas is in the hands of his former foes, nothing goes exactly according to plan. As he becomes entangled in the personal and professional conflicts on the East German side, Leamas has to constantly re-assess his position and figure out just what is going on and who he can trust.
le Carré brilliantly exposes the absurdities and cruelties of the world of espionage. The plot features stunning betrayals and reversals of fortune before culminating in an ending that ranks among the more chilling I’ve ever read. There are no heroes here, just a lot of untrusting, untrustworthy people playing deadly games using politics as an excuse for their inhuman behavior.