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Posted by a reader on 7/27/2004
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is the quintessential cold war espionage novel. For four decades, this early LeCarre tale has served as the benchmark for 'spy thriller' writing. Reading it fresh in 2004, it's easy to see why.
Though THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD was only LeCarre's third novel, his strengths as a storyteller are fully evident here. The opening chapter alone serves as a narrative tour-de-force, swiftly and adroitly introducing the reader to the central characters, their impossible situation, and the hopeless, duplicitous world they inhabit. It is beautfully mirrored by the final chapter, in which the consequences of protagonist Alec Leamas' weakness becomes excruciatingly, tragically clear.
In terms of both style and structure, this early work seems to take its cues from Grahame Greene's '50s novels -- particularly THE QUIET AMERICAN. As in Greene, LeCarre's descriptions here are spare and succinct, with characters and situations quickly sketched in razor-sharp detail. Like Greene, this writer shows that sacrifice of innocents at the hands of arrogant ideologues has become mundane. He reveals the tragic complicity of all-too-human agents like Alec Leamas. Yet LeCarre does not share Greene's belief in personal redemption: His characters take it for granted that they live in an amoral labyrinth in which treachery and triple-cross are simply routine.
Economy and intelligence are hallmarks of this work. Dialogue is terse, sharp; plot complications are introduced with a minimum of fuss. LeCarre sketches his players deftly, in medias res, as they run the gauntlet. Consequently, this 224-page novel can be read in two sittings, yet its characters and situations seem fully realized -- and its tragic conclusion hits with tremendous impact.
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is an early work, by a writer still looking to more experienced hands for models. It would be almost a decade before LeCarre truly came into his own, with TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Still, it's clear that this novel is more than just a superlatively crafted 'spy thriller', more than just a classic of the genre. Forty years after its first publication, LeCarre's tragic tale has lost none of its power: THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD remains an extraordinary masterwork, by a supremely gifted and intelligent writer.
A chilling tale of deceit and deception
Posted by P. A. Doornbos on 2/13/2010
This classic became a worldwide bestseller and was turned into a successful movie starring Richard Burton as the British spy Alec Leamas (AL). It also enabled John Le Carré (JLC) to say farewell to the British Foreign Office and devote himself full time to writing. First published in 1963, this book has not really aged. JLC's books are about what Americans call HUMINT (human intelligence), characters living under cover, determined to go unnoticed. In contrast to Ian Fleming's creation James Bond, JLC's heroes attach little importance to technology. For them no high living, casinos, amazing gadgets or crazy men planning to rule the world or steal the gold from Fort Knox. With one exception (A Murder of Quality), in the novels from the 1960s and 1970s the Cold War is the backdrop and the Russians and their satellites, the enemy.
AL has been the Circus West Berlin man for ten years, when his networks in East Germany are destroyed one by one by Mundt, who has quickly risen inEast Berlin's intelligence apparatus after killing two of his own agents in London and managing to escape from the UK. Empty-handed, AL returns to London, where he is shelved in the Circus' Banking section. This is the beginning of his life spiralling downward, or is he being brought back into play? Where people work with people, mistakes are made. AL meets the assistant librarian Liz, who has been a Communist party member since 1954, and decides not to involve her in the legend being created around his person by Control and his staff, amongst whom George Smiley. The Circus is unaware of their affair...
Superlative writing, great characters, mounting tension, unexpected turns in the plot and a dramatic and cynical finale. It is a recipe for compulsive reading. JLC's oeuvre is eminently re-readable. Masterpiece.
Posted by firstname.lastname@example.org on 10/16/1998
This is it - the best spy novel ever written, so good that not even Le Carre has ever been able to match it. If your image of espionage is formed by the cheesy gadgetry and high adventure of James Bond, then get ready for one very rude awakening. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a heartbreaking story, full of lonely people sadly making their way through a cold world - the Cold War was never more chilly than it is here. It's a sad and depressing book, but a smashingly good one, too. Read it.
The definitive Cold War espionage novel
Posted by Doug Vaughn on 12/6/1999
This book defined a genre. From the elegance of the language, to the betrayal and harsh brutality of the plot's finale, this novel set the standard against which all other espionage fiction of the Cold War would be judged. Whatever the truth of the matter, Le Carre's fiction created a world which is so real that subsequent spy novels departed from its parameters at their peril.
The story at the heart of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold implicates all sides in the struggle in a hypocritical conspiriacy of betrayal and disloyalty. The message seems to be that no good deed goes unpunished and that things certainly are not what they seem.
A truely great book, with characters one cares for and a deftly plotted story that both surprises and distresses the reader. The message of the book is not a pleasant one, but then the reality of Cold War espionage was not pleasant either.
Posted by Anonymous on 1/12/2002
Arguably the best spy novel ever written. It was out of print for years. I envy the readers who can now buy this newly printed copy. I had to make due with a decades old moldy copy that fell apart as I read it. Not that I'm complaining--I loved the book! Le Carre knows his spy stuff. This is not some techno-filled, action-packed, lets-throw-in-a-plot-twist-for-the-h@ll-of-it book. This is a tightly-packed page turner that will lead you by the hand in the beginning and then drop a piano on you at the end. Le Carre's heroes are not Bond, they are overworked, overweight, underpaid, highly intelligent characters who love their country. This book was one of Le Carre's first books, and I feel his very best. The "winners" and "losers" are blurred in the spy game, and this book clearly illustrates that point. If you want to get a feel for what real Cold War spy work was all about, read this book. Highly recommended.