Roger Pettit'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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Jul 09, 2012

it was amazing

It is such a shame that fiction is artificially divided into genre fiction (e.g. crime novels, science fiction stories and fantasy) and so-called mainstream fiction. Bookshops encourage such thinking by the way in which they organise their stock (but they do so for what are essentially understandable reasons of what they deem to be commercial necessity). Critics, other opinion-formers and even readers themselves go along with such nonsense, but are generally motivated by less honourable reasons such as literary snobbery. So-called genre fiction is widely regarded as inferior to its mainstream cousin. It seems to me that writers of the former rarely win any of the major literary prizes, such as the Man Booker award in the UK, that are in theory open to all works of fiction. I sense this is because their work is automatically considered to be less worthy and less skilful than that of their colleagues who write supposedly mainstream novels. If ever a writer of so-called genre fiction could be said to illustrate the sheer stupidity of such fatuous pigeon-holing, it is John le Carre. His novel "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" is one of the best works of fiction in any field.

Set in the early 1960s, it features Alec Leamas. Leamas is a world-weary, cynical loner. He worked for the British Security Services in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the name at that time for communist East Germany. Having returned to London on the death of a double agent who was working for the British and for whom he was responsible, Leamas becomes embroiled in an undercover counter espionage operation that he believes is designed to avenge that agent's murder by the GDR security services. However, as is usually the way with such things, all is not what it seems. Leamas is, in fact, an unwitting pawn in a rather more complex game of bluff and double bluff that, unknown to him, has been designed by his bosses to protect their own interests. It would be unfair to say more than that.

"The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" is a brilliant and thought-provoking novel. It is beautifully constructed and is written in clear, succinct and spare prose that takes the reader along with it for (in the edition that I have just read) all of its 256 pages. The characterisation is excellent. And the story itself is riveting. This is a novel that simply reeks of authenticity (and we do know that the author is very familiar with the history and the workings of the British Security Services). It is also a story that does not patronise the reader, who is required at all times to assess and to think about why something is happening and what motivates a particular character. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the quite brilliant conclusion of the story, where the important thing is not so much what actually happens but why the events described pan out as they do. On the surface, there is a certain element of ambiguity about the ending of the story. But, in fact, there isn't. As with much of the rest of the book, the author does not spell out the motivations for the actions of his characters. The reader has to work that out for themselves. The clues are there.

"The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" is a superb novel. It is intelligent and thought-provoking. But it is also entertaining and accessible. I urge you to read it. 10/10.



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