A well written spy novel is a thing of beauty.
A lot of the enjoyment is the fact that you never know just which character to trust; what with the crosses, double crosses and the often inevitable triple cross.
John Le Carré's, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) is a classic of the genre and I thought it was time I read it.
Set in the height of the Cold War (1950s and early 1960s), the novel begins with the assassination of a high ranking East German double agent providing intelligence to the British Secret Service (the ‘Circus’).
The agent in charge, Alec Leamas, is recalled to the British Secret Service in London. He then becomes involved in an intricate plot played out in the London and East Germany to revenge the assassination.
This thrilling and gripping read is simply a masterpiece in controlled story telling.
The novel is immaculately plotted and the various twist and turns reach a nail-biting crescendo of a trial scene.
I simply couldn’t read fast enough to finish.
However, not to give too much away but the ending is so utterly bleak. It this sense it is very English compared the American spy genre where the hero always triumphs over the enemy.
Finishing the book I felt both exhilarated and exhausted. I felt such a sense of despair at the end of the novel. Le Carré's seems to be pointing to the utter futility of the ‘game’, its dubious morality and the cost on the lives of those who play it.
As Boyd Tonkin notes in his Guardian profile of Le Carré:
“Inside his fiction, doubles, distortions and delusions trapped apparent enemies into a mutually dependent system of organised duplicity. It binds its members absolutely, determining their life or death, while leaving outsiders truly out in the cold.”
My intention was to start reading Le Carré's George Smiley series (of which this book is part of) but actually feel the need for a bit of a break.