G.M. Lawrence's Reviews > The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré
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's review
May 16, 2012

it was amazing

It’s not his best book. Not by a long shot. That would be Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the most beautifully written thriller of our age. But like the pain in my shoulder that inexorably follows the advent of the frigid winter rains, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is and always will be with me. His story and the way he told it have, in very real and tangible ways, made me the writer that I am today.

Before him, I was an exile, wandering half-heartedly through the disjointed craft of literary fiction. It was my only choice really. I’d tried thrillers in all their various shapes, sizes, forms, and sub-genres. Then just for good measure, I’d tried them again. But they were vaporous and unsatisfying—all action, bravado and punch, no intellect or heart. Where was the curiosity over the vastness of the universe? Where was the confusion over the complexities and mysteries of the human condition? No, I couldn’t take that path. I needed characters cut from a finer a cloth, men and women who thought and suffered and struggled to make sense of it all. I needed complex, contemporary backstories drawn from a real world filled with peril and injustice, moral compromises and betrayal. I needed depth and dimension that wasn’t to be found in a thriller. Not until 1963 anyway. Not until the publication by an obscure English press (even then the indie publishers were the incubators of our trade) of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Not until John le Carré, a writer “too fine for his chosen genre” (as one reviewer was later to phrase it), came like a savior to rescue us all and show the world the real potential of the thriller.

The book won the Gold Dagger award from the British Crime Writers Association for "Best Crime Novel." It also won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for "Best Mystery Novel." It was the first time a single book had won them both. Time magazine named it one of the world’s one hundred best novels, and Publisher’s Weekly called it “the best spy novel of all time.” But the world struggled to define a book that was in so many ways genre-busting. Some said it was a thriller, others a mystery, still others a work of literary fiction. In truth, it was, and is, all of those. But truer still, it is the story of a complex, vulnerable, world-weary man named Alec Lemas. Above all, it is the tale of his lot and his destiny. It's one of the books every thinking person should read at least one.

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