I was really looking forward to reading The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. Written by John le Carré in 1963, this spy novel is probably the most modern, mainstream book in the Well-Read Man project. But I didn’t add it at the project’s halfway mark just for fun. The relatively short work really does belong among classics, with the majority of the text devoted to spying on the human heart rather than on enemy agents.
As the book begins, Alec Leamas, the head of British intelligence in Cold War Germany, witnesses one of his agents gunned down just a few feet from safety. And it hasn’t been the first time. Hans Mundt, Leamas’ counterpart in East Germany, has been very busy eliminating the competition. Back in London, Leamas and Control (his boss) devise a plot to eliminate Mundt from the equation. The plan is so covert, so diabolical, and so morally questionable that even upstanding Leamas isn’t told what the plan and its aims really are. By the end of the book, Leamas discovers that you can’t trust East Germans…any more than you can trust your own spy agency.
While there are moments of tense spy-on-spy action, most of the book consists of long secrets-free discussions between secret agents. The book is a drama of the Cold War era, but its core focus is fresh and relevant in a post-9/11 world. As the story unfolds, Leamas is forced to ponder a world where security takes precedence over loyalty, where the expediency of temporarily alliances trumps trust and honesty, and where moral choices are governed not by right and wrong, but by what actions will maintain stability.
As a spy novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is just OK. The guns, the gin, and the girl are all there, but this isn’t a slick James Bond entertainment piece. In fact, it’s not really a spy novel at all, which is good news, because most of us can’t relate to the world of covert intelligence. The book, instead, is a treatise on the human condition, and no matter how much we try to hide it from our enemies, we are all too human.
(For more information on this book, visit its project page.)