History: Published in 1963, the novel received critical acclaim at the time of its publication and became an international best-seller.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold occurs during the heightened-alert politico-military tensions that characterised the late 1950s and early 1960s of the Cold War, when a Soviet–American war in Europe (Germany) seemed likely. The story begins and concludes in East Germany, about a year after the completion of the Berlin Wall.
At its publication during the Cold War (1945–91), the psychological realism of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) rendered it a revolutionary espionage novel by showing that the intelligence services of both the Eastern and Western nations practiced the same expedient amorality in the name of national security. Until then, the Western public imagined their secret services as promoters of democracy and democratic values; a view principally espoused in the popular James Bond thriller novels — romantic high adventures about what a Secret Service should be. John le Carré, on the other hand, shocked readers with chilling realism and detail, portraying the spy as a morally burnt-out case.
Plot: The West Berlin office of the British Secret Intelligence Service, (known in the Le Carre novels as the Circus), under the command of Station Head Alec Leamas, has been performing poorly. At the commencement of the novel, Karl Riemeck – his last and best double agent, a high-ranking East German political officer – is shot dead at the last moment whilst defecting to West Berlin.
Without any agents left, the disgraced Leamas is recalled to the Circus in London by Control, chief of the Circus. There, Control asks Leamas to stay “in the cold” for one last mission: to turn (defect) and provide false information to the East German Communists that would implicate Mundt as a British double agent — what his second-in-command, Fiedler (a Jew), already suspects — to result in Mundt being executed by his own people. Control tells Leamas that Fiedler, due to his paranoia about Mundt, would be the best man to depose Mundt. George Smiley, and his former assistant, Peter Guillam, brief Leamas for his crucial mission; Control tells Leamas that Smiley had not returned to the Circus after the events of Call for the Dead because of moral qualms about unethical Circus operations.
To make the East Germans believe him ripe for defection, the Circus sacks Leamas, with a pittance of a pension (rumored so, because of theft), and he gets a miserable job in a run-down library, and loses it for drinking while working. At the library, he meets co-worker Liz Gold, an unworldly young Jewish woman, who is the secretary of her local cell of the Communist Party of Britain. Despite her politics, they fall in love and develop an intimate relationship. Before taking the “final plunge” into Control’s scheme, Leamas makes Liz promise not to look for him, no matter what she hears, and says good-bye to her. Leamas also tells Control to leave Liz alone; Control agrees. Then, as planned, Leamas lands in jail after he assaults a local grocer.
After jail, an East German recruiter-in-England approaches Leamas; he is taken abroad, first to Holland, then to East Germany, en route meeting higher echelons of the Abteilung, the East German Intelligence Service. During his debriefing, he drops casual hints that point to British payments to a double agent in the Abteilung, whilst pretending not to see the implications. Meanwhile, in England, George Smiley and Peter Guillam appear at Liz Gold’s apartment, claiming to be friends of Alec, and question her about him, and offer her financial help.
In East Germany, Leamas meets Fiedler. They have many conversations in a hut in a forest clearing, where Fiedler seeks conclusive proof against Mundt and engages in ideological and philosophic discussions with the pragmatic Leamas. As observed by Leamas, Fiedler seems content to live in Mundt’s shadow, but is relatively young and brilliant. To Leamas, Fiedler is sympathetic: a Jew who spent the Second World War in Canada, and a Communist idealist who considers the morality of his actions. In contrast, Leamas sees Mundt as a brutal, opportunist mercenary, who was a Nazi before 1945, who then joined the Communists simply because they were the new bosses, and who remained an anti-semite. Leamas believes helping Fiedler destroy Mundt is a worthy act. Meanwhile, Liz Gold is invited to East Germany for a Communist Party information exchange.
The power struggle in the Abteilung comes into the open when Mundt orders Fiedler and Leamas arrested and tortured; however, the leaders of the East German régime intervene, because Fiedler had earlier applied for an arrest warrant for Mundt on the same day that Mundt arrested Fiedler and Leamas. They are released, and Fiedler and Mundt are summoned to present their cases to a Tribunal convened in camera, in the town of Görlitz.
At the trial, Alec Leamas documents a series of secret bank account payments that Fiedler matches to the movements of Mundt. Fiedler also shows that Karl Riemeck passed to Leamas information to which he had no formal access, but to which Mundt did. Fiedler also presents to the Tribunal other proofs implicating Mundt as a British double agent and explains that Mundt was captured in England, and allowed to escape only after agreeing to work as a double-agent for the British.
Mundt’s attorney calls the unsuspecting Liz Gold as a surprise witness for the defence. Although not wanting to testify against Alec Leamas, she admits that George Smiley paid for her apartment lease after visiting her and that she had promised Leamas to not look for him when he disappeared. She also admits that he had said good-bye to her the night before he assaulted the grocer. Realising that the operation is now blown, Leamas offers to tell all in return for Liz’s freedom. He admits that Control gave him the mission to frame Mundt as a double agent, but adding that Fiedler was not a participant at which the Tribunal scoffs. In cross-examination, Fiedler asks Mundt how he knew that someone had paid off Liz’s lease, because, Fiedler insists, Liz never would have spoken about it. Mundt hesitates before answering (“a second too long, Leamas thought”), then the Tribunal halts the trial and arrests Fiedler. Then, and only then does Leamas understand the true nature of Control and Smiley’s operation.
Liz is sent to a cell, but Mundt places her in a car with Leamas at the wheel. During their drive to Berlin, where an exit route from East Berlin awaits, he explains the operation to her, including the parts of which he was unaware until the end of the trial. The fake bank account payments were real, and Hans-Dieter Mundt was a double agent reporting to George Smiley and Peter Guillam. The operation was against Fiedler, not Mundt, as Leamas was deceived to believe, because Fiedler was close to exposing Mundt as a British double agent. Fiedler was too powerful for Mundt to eliminate alone; therefore, Control and Smiley did it for him. They placed him and her as co-workers to provide Mundt with the means of discrediting Leamas, and consequently discrediting Fiedler. By falling in love, Leamas and Liz made it easy for them. Liz is horrified that British Intelligence planned the death of Fiedler, an intelligent, considerate and thoughtful man, in order to protect the despicable Mundt. Fiedler’s fate is unrevealed, but Leamas, in answer to Liz’s question, says that he would most likely be shot.
Despite her moral disgust, Liz accompanies Leamas to the break in the wire fronting the Berlin Wall, where they are to climb the wall and escape to West Berlin. In the concluding chapter, “In from the Cold”, after Leamas climbs to the top of the Berlin Wall and reaches down to pull Liz up, East German spotlights suddenly turn on them, and she is shot. Her fingers slip from his grasp and she falls. From the Western side of the Wall, Leamas hears a Western agent calling to him, “Jump, Alec! Jump, man!” and among other voices George Smiley's. Seeing Liz dead, Alec Leamas climbs back down the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall. The border guards then shoot him dead.
Review: One forgets just how unsparing the book is, how the picture it paints of human motivations, human duplicities, human frailty seems presciently aware of all that we have learned and unlearned in the intervening decades. The world was, on the surface, a more innocent, more straightforward place in the early 1960s: there were good guys and bad guys and they were easy to spot. One of the shock effects of reading The Spy when it was published must have been the near-nihilism of its message. It is unremittingly dark – or almost so – and this fact, I believe, lies at the root of its greatness.
The Spy is the story, to put it very simply, of a complicated act of deadly triple-bluff perpetrated by the British Secret Service against its enemies in the German Democratic Republic, as communist East Germany was then known. At its centre is Alec Leamas, sent, he believes, on a clever under-cover mission of revenge but in fact the unwitting tool of even cleverer British brains with other motives. So much so relatively straightforward, but one of the sheer pleasures of the grade one espionage novel is in unravelling its multifarious complexities and Le Carré handles the unspooling web of narrative and motive with exemplary poise.
Opening Line: "The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, "Why don't you go back and sleep?"
Closing Line: "As he fell, Leamas saw a small car, smashed between great lorries, and the children waving cheerfully through the window."
Quotes: "People who play this game take risks. Fiedler lost and Mundt won. London won — that’s the point. It was a foul, foul operation. But it’s paid off, and that’s the only rule."
"What do you think spies are: priests, saints, 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."
Rating: Very Good. I loved the trial scene.