I finished The Spy Who Came in From the Cold last night. It was an excellent book, compact, enjoyable, and worthy of the praise it has been receiving since its first publication in 1963. See the original New York Times review from January 12, 1964.
As the book’s title indicates, the protagonist, Alec Leamas, is an aging espionage professional who wants to “come in from the cold.” Recalled to London after an operation goes wrong in Berlin, Leamas finds that because of too few years of government service “coming in” will be cold indeed – a meager pension and a life of relative impoverishment. With no better options, he accepts one last assignment to square things with his masters at the Circus and settle a score with an enemy on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
In an age of digital surveillance the espionage in the book is pleasingly analogue – telephone calls from phones booths, overheard actions, surreptitiously read newspapers, and, most enticingly, intricate traps into which the enemy should fall through false deduction. For those who remember the Cold War, le Carré’s clear prose highlights similarities on both sides of the Wall: bureaucracy, the sacrifice of the individual for a greater teleological purpose, and a general futility that neither side dared to acknowledge.
Now is a great time to read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. What in 2020 is a reminder of a division 29 years in the past, was a dreary reality with 28 years left to go at the time of publication in 1963. Le Carré’s work is more than excellent and entertaining fiction. As Europe again sits on the cusp of unity and division it is a reminder of what a path towards the latter could bring.