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Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) by John Le Carre

Richard Burton played Alec Leamas, British secret service agent in the move version of John Le Carre's 1963 novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Book Review:
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
by John Le Carre

  Any fan of the genre would agree that Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John Le Carre are the "holy trinty" of Cold War era spy fiction.  Greene is the elder statesman, with spy novels that pre-date the Cold War proper, but who set the tone of foreign settings, action and moral ambiguity which characterize the genre.  Ian Fleming is the red-blooded son, the athlete, the son who is good with girls.  He removed much of Greene's ambiguity and amped up the exoticism and the action sequences.  If Fleming is the flesh and blood son, then John Le Carre is the ghost, the member of the trinity who heightens the moral ambiguity and decreases the flash and bang of Ian Fleming's James Bond.

  John Le Carre's work is characterized by its straightforward assertion that both side on the Cold War were willing to do whatever it took, and that the West was in no way morally superior to the Eastern bloc, both sides were shitty.  Le Carre's "main character" is English Secret Service agent, George Smiley.  If you didn't know that this series of books early in Le Carre's career are called the "George Smiley series" you wouldn't glean it The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  In this book, Smiley is a minor character to the point where he barely appears in the text.  Not having read the two prior books in the series, where Smiley is more prominent, I didn't figure out Smiley's role until the very end.

  In this book, Alec Leamas is the bureau head in Berlin, working for the English Secret Service.  He has a bad run of getting his agents killed by Mundt, an ex-Nazi now working for the East German Secret Service.  Leamas is recalled to London where he is enlisted in a plot to remove Mundt.  The plot precedes in rapid steps, though his prose is a step above the pulp-fiction-esque work of Ian Fleming, Leamas does not spend as much time struggling inwardly with moral dilemmas as does a Graham Greene character.

  Leamas feigns being tossed out of the service and even gets himself thrown into prison.  Upon his release the East Germans are quick to recruit him as a defector, and it all plays out in more or less familiar fashion.  Even though I am largely unfamiliar with Le Carre, I did see the recent Phillip Seymour Hoffman Le Carre movie, A Most Wanted Man, and they display a surprisingly consistent moral tone. 

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