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Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

July 16, 2009

Publisher: Sceptre

Paperback: 240 pages

A taut, electrifying thriller etched from the paranoid, double-crossing and disillusioned world of the cold War, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the quintessential spy novel. It propelled its author, John le Carré, to unrivalled heights; cementing his position as a master of the thriller and gave readers a realistic, subdued take on the spy genre.

We enter into a world, not of fast cars and loose women but a world where everything seems to be cast in a perpetual shade of grey. Characters’ motivations are defined with all the procession of a blind man with Parkinson’s. The main character, Leamas, is an enigma; we never truly understand him, we might get a glimpse of who he is but le Carré snatches it away. This rhythmic give-and-take is essential to the appeal of this book. We become not mere readers but voyeurs in this clandestine world.

I write voyeurs because that is what we become; the story is voyeuristic, we look through a keyhole and what do we see? a labyrinth of secrecy. We believe we become privy to these secrets, but le Carré swiftly and deftly takes it away and we’re left stumbling in the dark. The plot is an intriguing game of cat and mouse, and we, the readers are both the cat and the mouse.

It’s not only the plot that makes this an exceptional novel (it helps) but the characterisation. le Carré portrays each character with broad strokes and then allows us to add the detail in through reading about what they do, what they say and what they think. Leamas appears to be in a constant state of fluctuation of being knowledgeable and ineffectual. He’s a middle-aged bureaucrat not a jet-boat-driving, gun-wielding maniac.

I’m being careful not to write about what actually happens, everything is key in this novel. It’s short but extremely succinct, it has all the precision of a Swiss clock. I’m giving these four and half stars, why? because while being absolutely stunning, I almost got too annoyed with the constant twists and double-crosses (which seems to be a silly criticism and it is), and I don’t see myself reading it again.

le Carré delivers his best novel (although I’ve only read three) in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It is a puzzle; a box inside a box inside a box, always one step ahead but giving us enough crumbs to want to crawl upon the ground. If you enjoy novels about spying then read it and if you don’t then read it anyway.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2009 8:09 pm

    This book looks so good! Thanks for posting this as I have not seen this one around but I am going to be looking for it now.

    Thanks and enjoy the rest of your Sunday! 🙂

    • July 19, 2009 9:01 pm

      That’s great. The BBC are currently dramatising it for radio, which you can listen to here: BBC however, I think you have to be from the UK to listen.

  2. July 20, 2009 9:00 am

    I’m listening to this on the radio at the moment and really enjoying it. I’m hoping that when they’ve done all eight of the Smiley novels there’s going to be a box set!

    • July 20, 2009 5:12 pm

      I’ve only listened to episode 1 at the moment. Brian Cox as Alec Leamas was great in it. I think BBC are only dramatising The Spy and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. I want to see the schedule for each one, hopefully there won’t be a huge gap between books. It might take a couple of months until Tinker, Tailor…

      • August 2, 2009 2:18 pm

        Actually Radio 4 is doing all eight novels. They did Call for the Dead and Murder of Quality as standalone “Saturday plays”, each 90 minutes long. They are doing the Looking Glass War and the three Karla novels in the Classic Serial format in which Spy Who Came in from the Cold was done: Looking Glass War is in September, in two episodes, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is three episodes in December, Honorable Schoolboy three episode in Jan/Feb 2010, and Smiley’s People three episodes in April 2010. Then The Secret Pilgrim will apparently be a single hour long pendant piece the week after Smiley’s People ends. More details http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/smiley-season/

      • August 2, 2009 5:29 pm

        Wow, that’s great news thanks a lot for that information. That should teach me to actually do more than a cursory glance to find something out. I’m going to have to read Looking Glass War and Honourable Schoolboy soon. Thanks again.

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