The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré

Fiction — print. New York: Scribner, 2001. Originally published 1963. 224 pgs. Library copy.

An aging spy at the height of the Cold War, Leamas is preparing to retire and return home to Britain but his spy master, known by the code name Control, has one last assignment for him: present himself as a disgraced spy, be recruited by the Soviets, and root out the double agent helping the Communists to identify and kill Soviet spies working as double agents for Britain. Sent back out into the cold – the no-man’s land near the Berlin Wall – Leamas becomes entangled with Liz, a librarian’s assistant and member of the Communist Party on the democratic side of the Wall.

This was my third attempt reading the spy novel that made le Carré famous and while I finished reading the book this time, I will confess that I had no idea what was happening for the majority of the novel. It has a certain noir, black and white film quality to it that might translate well to the screen but is difficult to follow in a written format.

The characters speak in code to another, which may be due to this being the third book in the series and the author assuming a certain level of knowledge and familiarity with prior incidents and characters, but le Carré refuses to help readers decipher the code until the bitter end. The descriptions are sparse and little context is given to the characters’ dialogue; I often found myself wondering where in space – Great Britain, West Germany, or East Germany – the characters were in that moment.

I did, however, like the ending (and not just because the book was finally over), which seems to be rare given the reviews on GoodReads. It was the most suspenseful albeit bizarre moment in the entire novel finally pulling together the importance of Liz, who was the only interesting character to me, with Leamas’ mission. I can also understand why this book is such a classic with its heavy use of dialogue, sparse descriptions, and cool detachment from the story I’ve come to – justly or unjustly – associate with spy novels over the years.

Others’ Thoughts:

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

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