The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré (1963)

Who do you think spies are: priests, saints and 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. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, I hate his guts; but not now. It so happens they need him. They need him so that the great moronic mass that you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.’ (p.231)

This is a really brilliant novel: wonderfully conceived, powerfully imagined, expertly executed, clearly written. It was le Carre’s breakthrough novel, only his third, which established him as a major player and created an entirely new downbeat, realistic feel for spy thrillers.

Plot

Alec Leamas works for British intelligence as station officer in Berlin. When his network is ‘rolled up’ ie arrested by East German security, he returns to England, like all le Carré’s protagonists aware of his advancing age and wondering if he is over the hill. He is given menial duties working in the banking section of the ‘Circus’ (so-called because it is located in London’s Cambridge Circus) and called in for a special meeting with ‘Control’, who has a plan.

Leamas will undertake a daring mission. He will be dismissed from the Circus under a cloud to the accompaniment of orchestrated gossip that he’s been badly treated and tricked out of a pension. He will drink heavily, get himself thrown into prison, in every way appear to be disillusioned, and so make himself available to be approached by ‘the other side’. He will, in short, set himself up to be a defector.

And this is just what happens. He drinks heavily to cultivate the image. Bad mouths the Service which has given him a menial job in banking. Eventually the Service ‘lets him go’. He is unemployed. He drinks heavily. He gets a job at a library and falls in love with a Jewish communist librarian, Liz Gold. He drunkenly assaults a greengrocer, knocking him out, getting arrested and sent to prison.

Sure enough, as soon as he gets out he is approached by one Ashe, who offers to look after him. After some chat he is passed on to a tougher man named Kievers. This man ascertains that Leamas worked for the Service and is prepared to talk about it, and explains he will be taken abroad for a short while to earn money telling what he knows. He flies under a false passport to Holland where he is handed over to a more senior figure, Peters. This Peters offers Leamas £15,000 to tell everything he knows about the Circus. Leamas agrees and answers all questions over several days interviewing.

They are in the middle of the process when news comes that the authorities in Britain have put out an alert for him. At this point Leamas becomes genuinely afraid – this wasn’t in Control’s plan. Peters and his German minders say he must now be moved East for his own safety. They fly to Berlin and drive across the checkpoint into East Berlin. From there Leamas is taken to an isolated safe house amid pine forests and meets Fiedler, number two in the Abteilung, the East German secret police.

In long interrogations – really conversations – with Fiedler, Leamas reveals everything he knows about the Circus’s operations in East Germany: about his network, how it was run, who was paid what etc. In among all the true stuff, though, is the thread of disinformation – a set of misleading facts about secret payments he had to make via Scandinavian banks.

The point of the mission

It is this which is the core of Leamas’s mission: because the dates of the payments have been timed to match the dates of trips to Scandinavian countries by Mundt, the head of the Abteilung. In other words, the entire deception is designed to frame Mundt and give his number two, Fiedler, the evidence he needs to arrest and eliminate Mundt. Cunning.

At every stage Leamas plays it perfectly by being reluctant: pretending not to know that the dates tie up, then refusing to believe Mundt could be a spy since he, Leamas, ran the German network and would have known about him. Leamas’s ignorance and reluctance to go along with the notion of Mundt’s guilt are designed to encourage Fiedler’s belief in it.

Mundt in A Call For The Dead

NB It is useful to have read A Call For The Dead before this novel, as this is the same Mundt who appears as in that novel as the head of the East German Steel Mission to Britain. When the network is ‘blown’ he oversees the assassination of agents who risk further exposure.

a) Although these events are referred to in Spy, it is more powerful to have read and experienced them in the earlier book; it gives a stronger sense of Mundt’s brutality. b) It is part of Fiedler’s case against Mundt that Mundt was able to leave England so easily after his network was exposed because Mundt did a deal with British Intelligence, and ever since then has been a double agent, rising up in the Abteilung, sending information to London.

Reversals

The novel is perfectly paced. All the events unfold with a deep and pleasing inevitability, yet nothing is forced or hurried. There is a sudden reversal – Fiedler is still interrogating Leamas when their house is taken over by security guards working for Mundt, who has intervened to arrest Fielder and Leamas. The latter is badly beaten then begins to be interrogated by Mundt (who we finally meet, cold and calculating). But almost immediately there is a further switch, because Fielder had just sent a dossier of his case against Mundt to the Praesidium, who now release Fiedler and imprison Mundt.

The impasse must be resolved and so the Praesidium organises an investigation to be set in a court room, each side making its case. Fiedler argues compellingly against Mundt, listing the evidence which has led him to believe Mundt is a British double agent. However, Mundt’s lawyer then demolishes it: He all-too-accurately describes the Circus’s plot, the way Leamas was laid off, ran out of money poor, drank too much, assaulted the grocer – Mundt’s lawyer accurately describes this all as a scam, designed to lead to his recruitment by the Abteilung.

Up to this point he is describing events which could be interpreted either way. But then, in a dramatic coup, he introduces Liz, Leamas’s lover, the librarian, into the court. (In a parallel strand of the novel we had seen her be contacted by the British communist party and invited on a ‘goodwill visit’ to East Germany. It was all a ploy to enable her to be produced at the trial.) Here Mundt’s counsel extracts, from an obviously honest and reluctant witness, the fact that Liz knew about the assault before it happened, that Leamas said he had something he had to do, that he made their last night a formal goodbye (the day before he assaulted the grocer and went to prison) that, in other words, the whole thing was planned.

In further, damning, evidence, she reluctantly admits that she was visited by Smiley, who left a card and told her to get in touch if she had any problems or if she heard from Leamas; and that her lease was bought and sent to her, as if in payment for her aid.

Leamas listens in amazement. How incompetent of London! It is almost as if they were trying to undermine his mission, it is almost as if they wanted the mission to indict Mundt to fail, it is almost as if the whole mission was actually designed to incriminate Fiedler… at which point, Leamas realises with a shock… that Fiedler is right. That Mundt is London’s man. That Control and Smiley lied to him, and have used him and Liz as pawns in a deeper plot to discredit Fiedler – a genuine communist – because he was getting too close to Mundt – London’s double-agent.

Liz Gold

The narrative then follows Liz as she is taken from the court through miles of corridors of the vast prison for dissidents and intellectuals, has a dispiriting conversation with the zealous woman guard, and sinks in despair onto her bed… when the door of her cell is opened and it is Mundt, hurrying her along corridors, out of a door onto a gravel drive to the main gate, through it and up to a car and to Leamas. He leaves them.

This is a particularly effective passage because a) it skips quickly over events in the court room, which probably got a bit tedious b) it powerfully conveys Liz’s fear and bewilderment – for once we are not following the actions of a seasoned player of ‘the game’, we are feeling the devastating impact of this terrifying world on someone like us, the disorientation, the terror.

The Wall

Mundt has triumphed. Leamas and Liz are free. They get in the car and, as Leamas drives at speed back towards Berlin, he reveals the moral of the story. Because Liz is such a complete innocent, Leamas is able to explain the rationale of espionage from the ground up, how it is the logical extension of two conflicting ideologies, how it is infinitely superior to actual war, but how it has its own casualties, compromises, amorality. What did she expect? (See the quote at the head of this review.)

They pick up an agent at a pre-arranged place who guides them to the Wall and gives them precise instructions about how to climb over at a place where the wire has been cut. And so they walk to it and climb up and over as instructed except that, as Leamas pulls the girl up after him all the searchlights go on and there are shots. Liz’s body goes limp then falls. She and Leamas had discussed in the car how odd it was that Mundt was letting her go, an idealistic fool who now knows he is a top-ranking double agent ie she holds his life in her hands. Leamas realises Mundt planned to have her killed all along. And, in deeper disillusionment, realises his own side must have known it as well. And we don’t need to be reminded that Mundt is viciously anti-semitic and Liz was a Jew. The full horror of these people, of this world, of total expediency, hits us.

Leamas hears voices from the West telling him to climb over and down to safety. He hears Smiley’s voice ‘from quite close’. And, like the ageing, tired, and completely disillusioned man he is, Leamas deliberately climbs back down into the Eastern side, knowing what will happen, no longer wanting to live. And is shot dead.

The sense of psychological defeat, betrayal, moral squalor, is complete, and leaves an enduring taste in the mouth. The le Carré flavour.

Jewishness

Throughout the text characters show a sensitiveness to Jewishness which is strange to me. Maybe it’s Germany, with its special history, that makes it so prominent. But it is also important to the plot that Liz the librarian is Jewish, and that Fiedler, the number two, is Jewish. In the brief spell when Mundt’s men take over, before the Praesidium intervenes, Mundt is described as torturing Fiedler, and whispering ‘dirty Jew’, ‘filthy Jew’, in his ear. The woman gaoler in charge of Liz is similarly automatically, thoughtlessly anti-semitic. Leamas is not anti-semitic but immediately recognises someone as Jewish.

Maybe this ‘Jew awareness’ is one of the differences between 1963 and 2014 (when I’m writing), 50 years which have seen enormous immigration to all West European nations and the creation of truly multicultural societies. Maybe Jews were more noticeable in 1963, in a society almost 100% white and caucasian – whereas in 2014 any slight physical difference they (may) exhibit has been lost in the vast sea of racial/ethnic differences which now surrounds us.

Memories of the Cold War

This sensitivity to Jewishness is one aspect of the way this novel is now part of a vanished history. When I first read 1984 and Darkness At Noon in the 1970s, they scared me more than any horror story, they described an abyss into which all society, all humanity, could quite possibly fall, they described outcomes which might result from the political struggles of the time, from the power of communist and socialist parties across Europe even, potentially, from the power of the radical wing of the Labour Party.

It is not just that the Cold War ended and the West won. It is the way even the notion that one single ideology could conquer the world has evaporated. When this novel was published the world population was 3 billion. China, the USSR, all East Europe, Korea then Vietnam, Cuba and parts of Latin America, and a lot of Africa could be described as communist or at risk of becoming communist. Now the world population is over 7 billion and it’s not clear that any state is now genuinely communist. Although Islamic fundamentalism gives the West’s security services something to do, that sense that ‘one side’ will triumph has disappeared. There are now lots of anxieties, but they are to do with the economy, the environment, global warming, random acts of terrorism.

That one, bottomless, existential fear about the death of human freedom and the triumph of totalitarian communism which I remember from the 1970s and which was captured in novels like this, has disappeared like morning dew. It is impossible to explain it to my children. They have no idea what I’m talking about.

Dramatis personae

  • Alec Leamas – fifty-year-old spy, pretends to be a defector
  • Control – head of the ‘Circus’ ie British intelligence
  • George Smiley – peripheral to the plot, but appears at various moments, specifically when he visits Leamas’s girlfriend Liz Gold, to find out what if anything he’s told her communist party leaders about Leamas (he also witnesses Leamas beating up the grocer, and pays off Leamas’s landlord)
  • Liz Gold – naive, idealistic librarian and member of the Bayswater communist party
  • Ashe – effeminate, nervous German agent, who makes first contact with Leamas, hands him on to…
  • Kievens – who establishes that Leamas is prepared to defect
  • Peters – in Holland, debriefs Leamas at length
  • Jens Fiedler – number two in Eat German Abteilung, interrogates Leamas in a friendly collaborative way because he suspects his boss, Mundt, is an English double-agent
  • Mundt – head of East German security; cold, cunning, sadistic, he is in fact a British double-agent, and the whole point of Leamas’s mission turns out to be to protect him by discrediting Fiedler

Credit

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré, published 1963 by Victor Gollancz. All quotes from the 1981 Pan paperback edition.

The movie

The novel was made into a fantastically atmospheric black-and-white film, released in 1965, starring Richard Burton and featuring Michael Horden, Sam Wanamaker, Oskar Werner and Robert Hardy. It is as much a classic of the film world as the book is of literature. All the actors are immaculate. The direction, by Martin Ritt, is wonderful. The framing of almost every shot is perfect, many of the frames can be frozen and make classy still photos. Ritt has a fantastically good eye and a choice way of locating the camera, conceiving action, framing the shot. And at the heart of it is a towering performance by Burton, acting much older than his 40 years, looking and sounding a thousand years old.

Interviews

Le Carre has given innumerable interviews to the press and TV over the years.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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