The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

I’ve recently read John le Carré’s biography by Adam Sisman and inevitably it made me want to read le Carré’s books. I decided to start with his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, first published in 1963.


a gripping story of love and betrayal at the height of the Cold War. This Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an afterword by the author and an introduction by William Boyd, author of Any Human Heart.

Alex Leamas is tired. It’s the 1960s, he’s been out in the cold for years, spying in the shadow of the Berlin Wall for his British masters. He has seen too many good agents murdered for their troubles. Now Control wants to bring him in at last – but only after one final assignment. He must travel deep into the heart of Communist Germany and betray his country, a job that he will do with his usual cynical professionalism. But when George Smiley tries to help a young woman Leamas has befriended, Leamas’s mission may prove to be the worst thing he could ever have done. In le Carré’s breakthrough work of 1963, the spy story is reborn as a gritty and terrible tale of men who are caught up in politics beyond their imagining.

My view:

This is a dark, tense book and quite short, just 252 pages. It’s complicated and although the language le Carré uses is clear and straight forward at times I wasn’t sure just what was going on, what lay behind the scenes – just what was Leamas up to, amidst the various deceptions and subterfuges? George Smiley does appear briefly in the book, but is there throughout in that he is masterminding Leamas’ mission.

Back from Berlin where he had seen his last agent killed whilst trying to cross the Berlin Wall, Leamas is apparently no longer useful. He goes to seed whilst working out his contact in the Banking Section, transforming into a drunken wreck no longer of use to the Secret Services, left without any money or a job until he finds work as a helper in a library for Psychical Research. Here he meets Liz Gold, who then unwittingly gets drawn into Smiley’s plan.

The atmosphere throughout is of secrecy, manipulation, of human frailty and its duplicitous nature. As the German, Fiedler says for a secret agent:

… deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without, but also from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earns a fortune, his role may forbid him the use of a razor, though he  be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide. (page 143)

By the end of the book Leamas is in despair as his mission seems to have failed. Liz can’t work out which side he is on and he says:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints, 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. (page 243)

I hate it; I hate it all; I’m tired. But it’s the world, it’s mankind that’s gone mad. We’re a tiny price to pay … but everywhere’s the same, people cheated and misled, whole lives thrown away, people shot and in prison, whole groups and classes of men, written off for nothing. (pages 244-5)

But then again did his mission fail? This is one of those books that I find so hard to write about without giving away too much of the plot – the introduction by William Boyd begins with this statement, ‘New readers are advised that this Introduction makes details of the plot explicit.‘ And indeed it does. I was glad I read it after reading the book, though, as it also gives an interpretation that I found helpful – in particular just what Boyd thought was meant by ‘coming in from the cold‘.

This fulfils the “Broken Object” category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

9 thoughts on “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

  1. I can never decide about spy books… whether they’re for me or not. I think if I read a few more I might be able to decide. The Telegraph has a list of 20 or so ‘best spy books’ in its Review supplement today and some of them actually sound quite good! One or two I’ve even read. LOL


    1. Cath, earlier this year I loved watching The Night Manager, which made me want to read it. And then at my book group other people also loved it, some had read his novels and we decided to read his biography – which then led me to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.


  2. I’ve often wondered Le Carre for something completely different. Spy stories appeal to me as does the setting. My Dad always loved John Le Carre


    1. I think you’d like them, Ali. I wondered about reading Tinker, Tailor, Spy first because I’d enjoyed the TV adaptation with Alec Guinness years ago – but The Spy is shorter, so I opted for that first.


  3. I always say I don’t really like spy books, even though whenever I read one I do! I’m glad you enjoyed this, since I decided to put it on my classics club list, and will hopefully be reading it in the not too distant future. Also glad to hear that Boyd gave a spoiler alert in his intro – I’m always afraid to read introductions these days since so many of them give too much away.


  4. I really must try a Le Carre novel, this might be the one to try,especially as it is going to be given the tv treatment by the same people who made The Night Manager.

    The only spy novels I have read is James Bond.


  5. I haven’t read anything by John le Carre but I really would like to; since I really enjoyed the BBC’s adaptation of The Night Manager and I have a copy of his Call for the Dead on my Kindle. I am also impressed there was a warning about spoilers at the start of the introduction – I often don’t read introductions for that exact reason.


  6. This is, in my opinion, one of those classics of spy fiction, Margaret. I agree with you that it has real layers and complications, and that, to me, adds to it. Glad you enjoyed it.


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