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Alec Leamas, the eponymous spy of this story, has just had yet another East German agent taken by his Communist rival, Hans-Dieter Mundt.  He's begun to tire of the whole spy game, as his boss at Cambridge Circus (British Intelligence) seems to understand:

    We have to live without sympathy, don't we? That's impossible of course. We act it to one another,
    all this hardness; but we aren't like that really, I mean... one can't be out in the cold all the time; one
    has to come in from the cold... d'you see what I mean?

But then Control offers him one last desperate mission before he comes in from the cold, an elaborate ploy to trap Mundt and get his own people to kill him.  So with great care and precise play acting, Leamas dangles himself as bait, a disgruntled ex-British agent tainted with just a whiff of scandal.  The plan works to seeming perfection, but there are two problems: first, Leamas has fallen in love with a young British Communist named Liz, who was originally merely part of his cover, he truly is past the point where he can live without sympathy; second, Control does not have a similar need and he has embedded plots within plots.  Unfortunately for all concerned, Leamas only comes to understand these two salient facts at the very end of the story as the whole plan comes a cropper.

Graham Greene called this novel: "finest spy story ever written."  And it is indeed a terrific read which raises uncomfortable questions about the nature of espionage in a democracy.  It is interesting to me how much differently I reacted to this book now than when I first read it in the 1980's.  At that time, I simply found it horrifying that Le Carre would so determinedly equate the two sides in the Cold War, making it clear that the West was no better morally in his view than the East.  I continue to find that view unacceptable, but at the same time the end of the Cold War has brought about some important reconsideration about the efficacy and morality of clandestine intelligence and, though unwavering in my belief that we were in the right in this War, I've come to feel that Le Carré's other essential point is correct and that a democracy should not engage in these types of cloak and dagger activities, indeed should simply not keep secrets from it's own people.

For me the issues that clarified my thinking are the U-2 affair and the Venona intercepts.  As Michael Beschloss writes in his terrific book, Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev and the U-2 Affair (1986) (Michael R. Beschloss  1955-) (Grade: A), thanks to intelligence gathered from the U-2, President Eisenhower understood that the Soviet Union remained extremely weak militarily even into the early 1960's.  But he kept this information from the public as part of a kind of tacit understanding with Khruschev, which allowed Eisenhower to keep a lid on U.S. defense spending, while allowing the Russian premier to pretend that the USSR was our equal as a military power.  The problem with this was that as soon as Ike was gone, replaced by the shallow John F. Kennedy, the nation was hurled into a decades long military buildup and a foolish war in Vietnam, largely because people did not understand how weak the USSR truly was.  In retrospect, the decision to withhold this information from the public must be seen to have been an enormous mistake.  It seems at least possible that mush of the Cold War tension and conflict of the 60's and 70's could have been avoided had the American people understood how dominant a position we maintained.

Second, in recent years the government has released recordings that were made of Russian embassy messages, called the Venona intercepts.  These recordings reveal the volume of espionage activity that the Soviets engaged in here and that the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss and others were in fact agents of the Russians.  The decision to keep these recordings secret kept alive the most bitter and recrimination filled chapters of the Cold War.  Entire generations of Americans are defined by how they came down on the question of Alger Hiss [see Orrin's review of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography   (1997)(Sam Tanenhaus)  (Grade: A)], with the intellectual class having caricatured anti-Communists as right-wing fanatics.  Revelation of such irrefutable evidence of Hiss's guilt would have served as a healthy rebuke to the Left and would have taken away much of the stigma left behind in the anti-Communist Right by Joe McCarthy's irresponsible tactics.

In both of these instances, each central to the events of the Cold War period, the American people were ill served by the decision of government to keep secrets from the citizenry.  Together they must call into question the very policy of classifying intelligence findings, instead of sharing them.  As senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has suggested, it may well be time to disband the CIA.

The fiction of John Le Carré, though it goes too far towards condemning the West as a mirror image of the Communist East,  raises additional questions about whether the inevitably cynical and callous world of espionage is an appropriate tool for the West to use.  Is it possible to reconcile state-sanctioned murder, manipulation of unknowing innocents, abandonment of brave agents who are captured, bureaucrats who keep ploys, plots and information secret from not only the public but even from other branches of government, etc., with the openness and decency that a democracy requires if it is to retain the trust of it's people.  Perhaps in a World War, when nearly every citizen is put at risk and the entire nation is on a war footing, espionage may have it's place.  But in Cold War, as we fought against the Soviet Union for forty years and now are waging against China, when the nation and it's leaders fundamentally refuse to take the war seriously, I think espionage of this kind can not be justified.  We should have just juked it out with the Russians or else let events run their course.  The policy of armed confrontation without battle and the level of governmental deception it required did more damage to our society than it can conceivably have been worth.

I remain ambivalent about the morality of Le Carré's views, but I think the questions he raises are really important.  And there has never been any doubt about the literary quality of his thrillers.  He as much as anyone is responsible for elevating the genre to respectability.  His books will be read long after many of his more "serious" contemporaries are forgotten.  Amongst his books only the Karla trilogy rivals The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  By any measure it is a great novel.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Thrillers
Book-related and General Links:
    -John Le Carré (1931-) - pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "john Le carre"
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: John Le Carre (NY Times Book Review)
    -BIO: The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition.  2000.   Le Carré, John
    -LECTURE: Why I Came In From the Cold, by John Le Carré On Sept. 17, while Washington wrestled with the problem of responding to the Gorbachev upheaval, John Le Carré examined U.S.-Soviet relations at a New York Times luncheon. His speech is excerpted here.  (September 29, 1989, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : The Making of a Master Criminal : An anguished John le Carré says we wasted our cold war victory and are now assisting our enemy (October 8, 2001, Times of London)
    -ESSAY: My New Friends in the New Russia, by John Le Carré (February 19, 1995, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Personal Best:  "   R i g h t    H o,    J e e v e s   "    b y    P . G .    W o d e h o u s e (John Le Carre, salon)
    -INTERVIEW: John Le Carré: An Interrogation (Michael Barber, September 25, 1977, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: A Talk With John Le Carré (Melvyn Bragg, March 13, 1983, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: Master of the secret world : John Le Carré on deception, storytelling and American hubris (ANDREW ROSS, Salon)
    -PROFILE: LE CARRE'S TOUGHEST CASE  (Joseph Lelyveld, March 16, 1986, NY Times Magazine)
    -PROFILE: Le Carré on the Most Immoral Premise of All (Tim Weiner, July 8, 1993, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Not quite conventional : Spy novelist John Le Carre speaks his mind about Jews and Israel (Douglas Davis, Jewish World Review)
    -PROFILE: John Le Carre: A literary barbarian? Or a writer to whom future generations will turn for insights into our times? (Jason Cowley, New Statesman)
    -ARTICLE: Author John Le Carre still holding back some secrets (Tim Sullivan, Associated Press)
    -ARTICLE: John Le Carre Plunges Into an Ugly New World  (Katherine Knorr,  International Herald Tribune)
    -INTERVIEW: Jack Cobb on John Le Carre (Book Beat)
    -ARTICLE: The ayatollah who came in from the cold :   JOHN LE CARRÉ'S OUTRAGEOUS ATTACK ON SALMAN RUSHDIE KEEPS THE FLAMES OF CENSORSHIP BURNING (CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, Salon)
    -John Le Carre (Stop You're Killing Me)
    -John Le Carre (Random House)
    -JohnLeCarre.com: John Le Carre bookstore and unofficial fan site
    -John Le Carré: bibliography, filmography, and other goodies (Espionage Notebook)
    -A Desk Is A Dangerous Place... A fan page for John Le Carré
    -ESSAY: Archives and Secret Intelligence in the novels of John Le Carre (Leo J. Mahoney,  Baskent University, Ankara, Turkey)
    -ESSAY: Le Carré's People (Anatole Broyard, August 29, 1982, NY times)
    -ESSAY: CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK; THE CASE OF THE CHANGELING SPY (WALTER GOODMAN, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: ALICE AND CHARLIE AND VIDA AND SOPHY -- A TERRORIST'S WORK IS NEVER DONE (Virginia Tiger, NY Times)
    -STUDY GUIDE: A Call for the Dead by John Le Carre (The British Thriller: An Introduction to the British Novel  by Phyllis Taylor (Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute)
    -LINKS: John Le Carré resources on the Web
    -ARCHIVES: "Carre" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Man Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre  Temptations of a Man Isolated in Deceit (ANTHONY BOUCHER,  January 12, 1964, NY Times)
    -REVIEW:  Michael Wood: The Lying Game, NY Review of Books
       The Tailor of Panama by John Le Carré
    -REVIEW: of   THE TAILOR OF PANAMA by  John Le Carre  Tailor-made best-seller (CHRIS NELSON -- Calgary Sun)
    -REVIEW: Diane Johnson: Missionary, NY Review of Books
       Single & Single by John Le Carré
    -REVIEW: of Single & Single by John Le Carre (Andrew Taylor, Tangled Web UK)
    -REVIEW: of Single & Single (Bill Ott, ALA Booklist)
    -REVIEW: of Single & Single (Andrew Rioss, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of The Spy Novels of John Le Carre: Balancing Ethics and Politics by Myron J. Aronoff (Raymond L. Garthoff, Political Science Quarterly)
    -BOOK LISTS: The scribes of our times : Debate rages over the best books of the century (ANDREW UNSWORTH, Sun-Times UK)

FILM
    -FILMOGRAPHY:   John Le Carré (Imdb)
    -INFO: Spy Who Came In from the Cold, The (1965) (Imdb)
    -BUY IT: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)(Amazon.com)
    -REVIEW: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)  (Damian Cannon, film u-net)
    -REVIEW: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) (Mike Monahan, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang! Bang!)
 

GENERAL
    -ESSAY: MYSTERIES JOIN THE MAINSTREAM (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times Book Review)
    -The British Thriller: An Introduction to the British Novel  by Phyllis Taylor (Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute)
    -STUDY GUIDE: A Call for the Dead by John Le Carre  (The British Thriller: An Introduction to the British Novel  by Phyllis Taylor, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute)

Other books by John Le Carre:
    -Call for the Dead (1961)
    -A Murder of Quality (1962)
    -The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963)
    -The Looking-Glass War (1965)
    -A Small Town in Germany (1968)
    -The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971)
    -Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
    -The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
    -Smiley's People (1980)
    -The Little Drummer Girl (1983)
    -A Perfect Spy (1986)
    -The Russia House (1989)
    -The Secret Pilgrim (1991)
    -The Night Manager (1993)
    -Our Game (1995)
    -The Tailor of Panama (1996)
    -Single & Single (1999)

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