I greatly enjoy a John Le Carré novel. He almost always makes me think, and he depicts espionage in a way that feels extremely real and is often quite unpredictable.
I have mostly leaned toward his later works, though. In novels like “A Delicate Truth,” “A Most Wanted Man” and “Absolute Friends” the author concerns himself with the troubles of my own adult life: privatized military units, extraordinary rendition, modern geopolitics. The things that piss off Le Carré often piss off me, and so these books grip me in a way the early Cold War-era novels don’t. Those early books seem remote to me, whereas the latter stuff applies directly to my own life.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed reading the first two George Smiley novels, “A Call for the Dead” and “A Murder of Quality,” but those books did not stick with me in the same way the latter-day stuff does.
“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” the third Le Carré novel, however, is going to stick in my mind for a long time to come.
Smiley, the deep-thinking hero of the first two books, is a background figure in this novel of espionage on either side of the Berlin Wall. He is pulling strings, moving his chess pieces, etc., but the protagonist is Alec Leamas, an operational guy working for the British government in West Germany and handling spies on the other side of the Wall. Those spies have been dying at an alarming rate, and so British intelligence decides to do something about it. That something involves turning Alec into a double agent.
Le Carré sometimes opens a book slowly, preferring to draw the reader in with his characters. I confess this technique bored the shit out of me in “A Small Town in Germany” very early on, and I put it away unread. But “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” starts with nervous and tense spies waiting for one of their own to escape East Berlin, and the story remains at high tension from that point on. We get to see the kinds of things necessary to planting a spy in the enemy’s midst, and keeping him there. We get to feel Leamas’ nervousness as he wonders if he is just an expendable pawn, or a monkey wrench his government threw into the enemy’s gears. It’s a chess game, on a board with shifting squares, and Leamas knows only part of the plan. He honestly has no idea who he can trust, if anyone.
Most notable for me, however, is that Le Carré explores here a theme that resurfaces in “A Most Wanted Man,” that of the common person who gets caught up and run over in other people’s spy games. Le Carré has a way of making the reader feel for those people, and wonder if perhaps we give our governments too much power.
Some hail “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” as the greatest spy novel ever. It certainly may be the best I have read, but I have many more to go. One thing is certain, though. I will be grabbing more early Le Carré novels as eagerly as I snatch up the newer ones.