I listened to The Spy who came in from the Cold by John Le Carre on audio. It was narrated by Michael Jayston who did the job admirably and because he starred in the TV series made many years ago of two of this author’s spy novels I already identified his voice with this kind of book which helped me to enter into the story very easily. I had read this book in paper form before but it is so many years ago that I didn’t remember most of the story and I had forgotten how good it is. There is a film of the book starring Richard Burton which I haven’t seen.
This is the story of Alec Lemas. A man who served his country by recruiting and running spies out of Berlin for years. He is tired and fed up of losing agents and after one man is killed crossing at a checkpoint in Berlin he returns to London. But there is one last job for Lemas before he can leave the spying game and now he will have to turn traitor on his own country in an effort to remove a threat from the East German intelligence service.
As this was written and is set in the early 1960s it is the middle of the Cold War when Germany, and Berlin, was divided. Tensions were running high and the prospect of another war was real. This book was written and reflects a particular time in the history of this country but its themes are probably still relevant.
The book follows Lemas as he sets his trap for the East German intelligence officer who was a character in a previous novel A Small Town in Germany, although you don’t need to have read that book to understand this one. Recurring characters from Le Carre’s novels have a part in this novel including Control, George Smiley and Peter Guillam. although it is very much Lemas’s story. While setting the scene for his betrayal Lemas connects with a young woman librarian who also becomes entangled in the events that follow. As the book proceeds you, and Lemas, begin to realise that everything isn’t as it seems and that there is more going on than is immediately evident.
This is pretty nearly a perfect novel although it is not fast-paced nor full of action. It is reasonably short but no paragraph is wasted and you need to be alert as things which were mentioned in passing come to have significance later on. Lemas is tired, disillusioned, cynical and worn out. His work is grubby and he is coming to hate it as he realises how people are used and discarded by the intelligence services in a greater game that they are playing. The final chapter is heart-breaking as everything becomes clear and Lemas realises how everyone is playing a part and how ruthless they are.
You can definitely read this as a stand-alone but it is part of a series of books, all of which feature George Smiley in a larger or smaller role. I write about my love for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy here. This book is as good as or possibly even better than that title although considerably less complex. I review a biography of the author here. This is a book very much of its time in that it describes for us a way of thinking and acting which are particularly relevant to the circumstances which prevailed then – I would like to think that we have moved beyond the situation in the 1960s although I often have my doubts. Once or twice there are words used to describe the suspected sexual orientation of characters which we would not use now but apart from this the characters are very recognisable and beautifully portrayed, especially the cynical Lemas and the naive Liz.
As I have before, I highly recommend Le Carre’s novels and you could very easily start with this one.
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