My goal is to eventually make my way through all of these must-read titles. These books have been around for so long and read by so many that another generic review from your average reader seems unnecessary. Instead, I thought it would be fun to take a look at what some of the experts have to say about the stories that paved the way for their own success… and how their perspective compares to my own reading experience. Today, I’m looking at John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
In the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall, Alec Leamas watches as his last agent is shot dead by East German sentries. For Leamas, the head of Berlin Station, the Cold War is over. As he faces the prospect of retirement or worse – a desk job – Control offers him a unique opportunity for revenge. Assuming the guise of an embittered and dissolute ex-agent, Leamas is set up to trap Mundt, the deputy director of the East German Intelligence Service – with himself as the bait. In the background is George Smiley, ready to make the game play out just as Control wants.
Denise Hamilton calls John le Carré “the bard of Cold War literature. He pierced the veil of secrecy and ideology and taught us about spycraft and skepticism while writing about universal human themes like honor, betrayal, and love.”
While all of this is present in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, it wasn’t there in a way that worked for me. The whole time I was reading it, I was trying to appreciate it for what it was. It’s a puzzle, a game, an intellectual exercise… but I just couldn’t get into it.
This is one of those rare ITW Must-Reads that I probably would have DNF’d if I weren’t reading through the whole list. The only other one I’ve felt that way about was Richard Stark’s The Hunter. And maybe someday I’ll come across one I really can’t finish. For now, though, I’m powering through.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold does have a lot going for it, if you’re interested in this particular kind of spy novel. “There were no Bondian pyrotechnics, little glamour or gadgetry, and negligible violence. What there was – in spades – was cool, elegant writing, moral ambiguity, and almost unbearable psychological suspense.”
There certainly is suspense… but I bore it just fine. Still, I can understand why this is considered one of the classic works of the genre. It’s just not for me.
Twenty down, eighty to go…
Next month I’ll be reading Sandra Brown’s The Witness.