So close and yet so far. Do I dare tell you how British secret agent Alec Leamas gets on in John le Carré's famous and game changing classic spy novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold? To come in from the cold means to end your career in espionage and live a happy, boring retirement back home, which is something Leamas wants to do but must first complete one last task. One last horrible and maybe impossible task of taking down the head of the East German's intelligence agency.
After a disastrous defection attempt results in the death of an East German spy/a double agent under Leamas's control, Leamas is told he must stay in the cold for just one more mission. The set up seems fairly straightforward. Leamas is made to appear a rather jaded ex-agent with little money, few prospects and a drinking problem to top off a seemingly miserable existence. The plan is ultimately to frame the head of the East German agency and essentially get him executed.
Alec takes on a job in a small library where he meets a young Jewish woman who falls for him. Maybe it's his worst mistake to begin a relationship with her, but he does. Before the final act that will take him behind the iron curtain for his big finale, he makes her promise not to come looking for him no matter what she suspects might be happening. Famous last words.
After a bust-up lands him in jail he comes to the attention of his East German counterparts and they in turn come to recruit him to spy for them. It's all an illusion, of course, and all going according to plan. What would that make him, a double double-agent? He's brought over to Europe, first the Netherlands and then unexpectedly to East Germany, where things get interesting. As he gets deeper into the heart of Eastern Europe, so too, does the story become more and more complicated. Liz, a Communist member, is brought over to East Germany not understanding what's behind the invitation. She thinks it's all to do with her political persuasion, but in reality she is going to be bait.
It's as complicated as it sounds. More complicated actually. This is a story filled with double crosses and triple crosses and rugs pulled out from under your feet. It's hard to peel back the layers to see just what is really underneath. It's probably not what you think. And it's not who you think either. Alliances and allegiances shift continually. And it's for that reason, or one of them anyway, perhaps that this story was a game changer.
This is a page turner but maybe not in the way you normally think. It is a slender novel and moves slowly and thoughtfully. Very thoughtfully and veers into the realm of philosophies and ideologies. Alec Leamas is jaded and almost everyone is willing to sell their own mother to the other side for the greater good of their own beliefs. What made this book so different than all the rest was the amorality of the characters and the story does take on pretty grim overtones. Maybe that was in part why it took me a while to finish reading this story. None of the classic James Bond moves, somehow a little outrageous (but great fun nonetheless) in comparison. Le Carré portrays the idealistic, righteous and very 'right' West as willing to fight downright dirty and with a complete lack of regard for any kind of high moral standard. So ambiguous are the characters and their motivations it's hard to tell who the good guys are as opposed to the bad ones.
In his introduction le Carré notes that he wrote the book in a "great rush" over about six weeks. It was his first real success, though it was his third book. It's the one that made people stand up and listen and ever after his later books would be compared with it--the bar having been set very high. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was written while he was in East Germany literally watching the Wall go up. No doubt that gave him lots of inspiration and it's obvious he writes from experience.
It took me a while to warm up to the story, but once I turned that last page I gave it all my admiration. It's definitely a novel I will have to revisit and maybe the second time through will be a smoother read. I'd like to read more of le Carré's novels (any favorites?) and will certainly continue my forays into spy novels. I had planned to read this one paired with something by Ian Fleming. Must get the ladies more involved as well.