Friday, March 19, 2010

Book Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

John LeCarré
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

On the back of my 1977 paperback edition of this book there is a quote from one of my favorite authors, Graham Greene. His quote says, “The best spy story I have ever read.” Below that is a quote from the New York Times that says, “It may be the best spy story anybody has ever read.”

I don’t usually go by what the reviewers say on the back of books, but in this case they’re right. This book is awesome from beginning to end.

The main character, Alec Leamas, is a British intelligence agent. He works in Berlin at the height of the cold war. He’s fed up and tired. All of his best East German agents have been exposed and murdered, one by one. He wants to quit. But his superiors in London give him one more assignment before he can come in from the cold – a chance to kill his nemesis in the East German Abteilung. He agrees to the mission and it turns out to be the hardest one he’s ever had.

The first time I read this book, way back in the ‘90s, it was the first book I had ever read by LeCarré (who was himself a British agent). It started me on a tear of reading everything he ever wrote and then seeing all of the movies based on his books.

I just love the way he writes. Spare, matter-of-fact, with great descriptive details that it seems like only someone who had actually done this job would think of. And the atmosphere is perfect. He shows you that spycraft can be dingy and cold and often requires months of careful research, uninteresting waiting, and tedious attention to detail. It is lonely – you can’t have a real connection to anyone. And it also is incredibly tense – waiting for your opportunity, never knowing if you’ve been found out. You always have to keep up your cover even when you are alone. And then there are rare moments of fast action, times when the spotlight is on you and you’d better play your part right or you’re dead.

I like that the people who Leamas is most impatient with are the people who try to understand why he does what he does. The people who think there must be some kind of religion or political philosophy that makes spies live this kind of a life. LeCarré seems to be saying that the best spies – on both sides – are the ones who are lost; the ones who aren’t sure what they believe in.

The always-disheveled Richard Burton is perfect as Leamas in the 1965 movie version of this book. This book also introduces the character of master spy George Smiley, who reappears in several of LeCarré’s other books including the awesome Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (which was made into a spot-on TV movie starring Alec Guinness).

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