It turns out that being in from the cold, for a spy at least, is an unpleasant business. That's because there's only one door, and it's the only door in the world that only swings one way. That's a lot of "onlys," but that's the way it goes in Spy-land, because once you're locked in you can't get out. Except through that one door, of course.
Not that Alec Leamas really wants to get out of the spy game. In fact, when his last mission fails, he dreads the prospect of what awaits him back in London. But what awaits him is another chance to tie up loose ends, to return to Berlin and make things right after losing his best double agent.
Making things right isn't possible. That's not to say revenge is out of reach, but that the morality (or its lack) of espionage isn't about right and wrong. It's about getting the job done, and getting out alive. For Leamas, morality is a casualty of war, and what's left is a conscience free to use any means, especially duplicity, to do what Control tells him to do.
Leamas, however, is also a human being. He falls in love with a young Jewish woman named Liz Gold, and their relationship leads to more sorrow, difficulty, and danger than either could have foreseen. John le Carré doesn't write about superspies and dudes who blow up bridges while drinking a bruised martini—he writes about real, broken people.
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was highly criticized on its publication in 1963 for being too bleak. The good guys don't win, the bad guys aren't foiled, and the good guys aren't all that good. Leamas is a good spy, but with no convictions left he wanders the spyscape a wasted man.
And why does he have no convictions left? Because his life of espionage has taken them from him. One gets the impression Leamas doesn't even remember why he's spying in the first place, and that the methods of espionage (like lying) have become his true motivations. Le Carré doesn't preach, but he shows us everything we need to see.
This is truly a great novel. The plot can get difficult to follow with all the double agents running around, but the real story isn't about the actual spying: it's about the spies, their loneliness and their moral erosion. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold has adventure and intrigue (and introduces George Smiley), but its real significance lies in its portrayal of humanity lost.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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