Book Review: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John LeCarre

The Spy Who Came In from the ColdThe Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”What do you think spies are: priests, saints, and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists, and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs?”

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Checkpoint Charlie where it all begins.

John Le Carre A.K.A. David John Moore Cornwell while in college started working for MI5 and then later transferred to MI6. He worked as a consul (code for spy) for the British Embassy in Germany and that is where he saw something that would spur the creation of the most influential spy novel of all time.

”It was the Berlin Wall that had got me going, of course: I had flown from Bonn to take a look at it as soon as it started going up. I went with a colleagues from the Embassy and as we stared back at the weasel faces of the brainwashed little thugs who guarded the Kremlin’s latest battlement, he told me to wipe the grin off my face. I was not aware I had been grinning, so it must have been one of those soupy grins that comes over me at dreadfully serious moments. There was certainly nothing but disgust and terror, which was exactly what I was supposed to feel: the Wall was perfect theatre as well as a perfect symbol of the monstrosity of ideology gone mad.”

This moment spawned The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

He’d written two little novels, almost novellas, where he introduces his character George Smiley. Smiley is in this novel as well, a shadowy figure behind the scenes which is where he works best. He can pull strings, and at the same time smooth the path, dropping just the right amount of crumbs to lead enemies into making assumptions. (we all know the ditty about assumptions) Cornwell wrote these books under an assumed name to protect himself from blowback which was prudent given the nature of his clandestine work. When Spy is published and it stays on the US bestseller list for over a year all pretenses of anonymity are replaced with the exact opposite…celebrity.

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The Spy, David Cornwell, who wrote novels, John Le Carre.

Le Carre has an interest in secrets. He wants to understand them, and the need that people have to keep them. His father Ronnie was a man that probably would have made a great spy if he hadn’t decided to be a criminal instead. Much to Le Carre’s ongoing embarrassment Ronnie was eventually jailed for insurance fraud and was frequently on the verge of bankruptcy.

“His father, Ronnie, made and lost his fortune a number of times due to elaborate confidence tricks and schemes which landed him in prison on at least one occasion. This was one of the factors that led to le Carré’s fascination with secrets.”

His father also had business dealings with the notorious Kray Twins who were London gangsters in the 1960s. I recently ordered a book on the Kray Twins because…well…look at them. I must know more.

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Reginald and Ronald Kray

Spying and committed fraud are not so far apart on the scale of unsavory professions, so those aspects that may have made Ronnie a con artist are exactly the same attributes that made his son a good spy.

So Smiley is relegated to the shadows and in the forefront is Alec Leamas.

”He had an attractive face, muscular, and a stubborn line to his thin mouth. His eyes were brown and small; Irish, some said. It was hard to place Leamas. If he were to walk into a London club the porter would certainly not mistake him for a member; in a Berlin night club they usually gave him the best table. He looked like a man who could make trouble, a man who looked after his money, a man who was not quite a gentleman.”

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The intensity of Richard Burton playing Alec Leamas in the movie brought the fictional character to life.

Leamas was head of the Berlin branch until too many things went wrong. His network of spies had been dismantled one by one by his arch enemy Mundt, head of the East German Intelligence. When I say dismantled I mean dead and by dead I mean murdered. Leamas is recalled to London where in a meeting with Control, head of the Circus; and of course, Smiley is there, a plan is hatched to bring Mundt down.

It is going to have to take a con, not the short con, but the long con. It would take time to turn Leamas from a reasonably respectable man into a man that is desperate enough to want to sell his country’s secrets.

First step, he must begin drinking copious amounts of alcohol, not a hard chore given his penchant for heavy drinking anyway. Second, they find him a job shelving books in a library a job so mundane for most people (you know… norms) it would create desperation. The plan goes slightly awry when he meets Liz, who also works at the library. Later when he is at one of his bleakest moments behind the Iron Curtain he realizes that Liz has given him something to hope for beyond just the success of this mission.

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Claire Bloom stars as Liz in the 1965 movie.

”He knew what it was then that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things—-the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into paper bag, walk down to the beach, and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it; he would make Liz find it for him.”

To me, anyone who can inspire those thoughts in another person is a beautiful human being.

The diabolical thing about Smiley is that what seems random is simply a carefully planned roll of loaded dice. As the pieces of plot fall into place my respect for Smiley continues grow right along with a leeriness of ever wanting my fate in his hands. Being a weighed risk before men such as Control, Smiley, or Mundt is like waiting for a judgment from Pontius Pilate. Though this is a short book the plot is heavy, forcing the reader to pay close attention, to ponder each revelation, and still be left at the end with doubts about who among the main players pulled the final string. I will defer to Graham Greene’s assessment of this book. ”The best spy story I have ever read.”

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I also watched the 1965 British movie starring Richard Burton. This was a reread and a rewatch for me, but so much water has went under the bridge that much of it was new again or at least being seen, being read, with older, hopefully wiser eyes. The movie is faithful to the book. Many great novels inspire great movies and many great novels/great movies inspire future writers. The overall impact of this novel on the genre is hard to calculate, but it is impossible to deny that this book set the bar high for all writers who try to write a better one.

My Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Review

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4 responses to “Book Review: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John LeCarre”

  1. Thanks for this terrific review – and that you folded in some actual nasties – with photos, no less!

    (and what a nice shot of “Liz”)

    I have left myself a note to find the film – even if it will “spoil” the novel.

    I had a brief acquaintance with Robert Ludlum’s thrillers – starting with THE ROAD TO GANDOLFO – which has such an overblown protagonist that it may count as a farce. This made me laugh out loud many times when I was twenty-something. Later I gave up on a “serious” Ludlum – being unwilling to convolute my attention with its plot.

    I find Cornwell’s more muted plotting (set-ups) to be less than compelling – but will surely try again at some point.

    Much more “surface” and certainly more easy – are Buckley’s Blackford Oakes novels. All of these incorporate actual/historical Russians (Soviets), other Eastern Bloc persons and at least one Cuban (“Che”).

    These are mere snacks -compared to Cornwell’s multi-course meals – thus not so satisfying.

    I look forward to your other reviews of spy novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeffrey D. Keeten Avatar
      Jeffrey D. Keeten

      I was momentarily confused by your use of the word muted, but then realized that compared to Ludlum and other spy novelists who pack in a lot of action that the word is appropriate. Le Carre certainly put much more effort into the cerebral aspects of spy craft. The scenes behind the scenes.

      I don’t really believe in spoilers. I find that everything one knows generally adds to the overall enjoyment of anything attached to a concept. You should definitely watch the movie. Fortunately, a few years ago Criterion had a sale and I picked up their blu ray version. There is something satisfying about their sturdy cases.

      I’ve never read Buckley’s books. I recently read a John Gardner Boysie Oakes novel, a spoof of Bond novels, which is funny considering that Gardner is eventually tapped to write the official Bond novels after Fleming. This too was a mere snack compared to the efforts of Cornwell.


      1. In his “spy novels” Blackford Oakes was a thinly veiled young WF Buckley – went to Yale – got an engineering degree – worked for the CIA….

        In the first novel – young Mr. Oakes was sent to jolly old England – and Buckingham Palace – where the newly coronated Queen espyed his young, handsome, bones and commanded him to a late clandestine visit to her bedchamber!

        (what CHEEK!!)

        In the mid-1970s, WFB promoted his novel in the usual way – including a British talk show. He was asked: “do you want to sleep with The Queen?” to which he replied”

        “Which Queen?”

        (no doubt he saw that coming “a mile away”)

        Cornwell seemed to have a much longer career as “a spook” than Buckley – which may have better informed him of the notion of Cold War “moral equivalence” (not to mention his own shyster father). Buckley objected (naiively?) to that notion saying in a memoir:

        “To say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.”


  2. Criterion has long rendered expert service to cinephiles. I have a number of their efforts on LaserDisc.

    I have one Clancy “technothriller” in my library (the “read” portion) – which I enjoyed AFTER the film.

    Featuring Sean Connery, a long-missed Tim Curry (last seen in 1973’s Rocky Horror Picture Show), and one of those “Baldwin brothers” (NOT Alec), The Hunt for Red October was a fine adaptation.

    I’m glad that you don’t “believe in spoliers”

    (but IF you do, and have not seen the film, STOP!!!)

    The first part of that film intimated that the Lithuanian Submarine Commander (Connery) was going to….

    (last WARNING!!)


    Which was a most worthwhile departure from the novel


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