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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 much 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.


Grade: (A)


See also:

John Le Carré (2 books reviewed)
John Le Carré Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: John LeCarre
-VIDEO INTERVIEW: : John Le Carré, invité de Bernard Pivot dans "Apostrophes" (Apostrophes | Antenne 2, 24/11/1989)
    -PODCAST: Spies, Sex, and John le Carré: The writer helped define the modern spy thriller with his cynical, expertly observed stories of espionage. How will new revelations about his private life complicate his legacy? (Critics at Large: With Vinson Cunningham, Naomi Fry, and Alexandra Schwartz, October 12, 2023, The New Yorker)
-REVIEW ESSAY: 60 YEARS OF 'THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD': Paul Vidich and Joseph Kanon investigate the legacy of John le Carré's groundbreaking novel. (PAUL VIDICH, 12/01/23, CrimeReads)
    -ESSAY: Florence Pugh called John le Carré an “old f*cking fart,” which… inspired him? (Jonny Diamond, January 13, 2023, LitHub)
    -PROFILE: The spy who loved me: Suleika Dawson’s account of her affair with novelist John le Carré has caused controversy. But she is unrepentant (Brice Stratford, December 30, 2022, The Spectator)
    -ESSAY: How Smiley’s people conquered Britain (David Patrikarakos, Oct. 9th, 2022, UnHerd)
    -ESSAY: Keep calm and le Carré on: His pessimism about Britain proved untrue — and its own kind of comforting fantasy (Simon Evans, 4/08/22, The Critic)
    -ESSAY: John le Carré meets Rex Stout (Jeff, OCTOBER 19, 2020, SpyWrite)
    -INTERVIEW: JOHN LE CARRÉ AND THE MOST INTERESTING AUTHOR INTERVIEW YOU WILL EVER SEE: In 1965, John le Carré was a breakout author with a semi-secretive past and some really complex thoughts about espionage. (DWYER MURPHY, 12/10/20, Crime Reads)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with John Le Carre (Terry Gross, Fresh Air)
    -ARCHIVES: John Le Carre (The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: IN PRAISE OF READING LE CARRÉ'S ENTIRE OEUVRE IN ORDER: Ben Winters on finishing a project he never wanted to end (BEN H. WINTERS, 3/08/24, CrimeReads)
-OBIT: John le Carré obituary: George Smiley’s creator elevated the spy novel to high art: Many critics considered his cold-war thrillers and other books literature of the first rank (Sarah Lyall, 12/14/20, NY Times)
    -OBIT: John le Carré, the spy who became the preeminent espionage novelist, dies at 89,/a> (SCOTT MARTELLE, DEC. 13, 2020, LA Times)
-OBIT: John le Carré (1931-2020) (Vannessa Cronin, December 14, 2020, Amazon Book Review)
    -ESSAY: John le Carré: a man who rose through the English class system as it was collapsing: John le Carré’s voice of old-fashioned English authority was one acquired through merit and bearing rather than birth (James Snell, 12/15/20, The Critic)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré’s Novels Weren’t Just Spy Thrillers — They Were High Literature (PACO IGNACIO TAIBO II, December 2021, Jacobin)
    -ESSAY: What le Carré’s people really think of Britain (John Lloyd, 12/17/20, CapX)
    -ESSAY: The Secrets John Le Carré Revealed: The Cold War is over, but we’re still living in Le Carré’s world (Brian Phillips Dec 17, 2020, The Ringer)
-OBIT: John le Carré, Novelist of Espionage and Geopolitics, Dead at 89: He reimagined what the spy novel could do (TOBIAS CARROLL, 12/14/20, Inside Hook)
    -OBIT: John le Carre: master of spy thriller who became moral voice (JITENDRA JOSHI WITH RICHARD INGHAM, 12/14/20, AFP)
    -OBIT: John le Carre, author of 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy', dies aged 89 (Guy Faulconbridge, 12/13/20, Reuters)
    -OBIT: John le Carré, Master Spy Novelist Embraced by Hollywood, Dies at 89 (Chris Morris, 12/13/20, Variety)
    -OBIT: John le Carre: The writer who opened a window on a secret world: Celebrated spy novelist, who has died aged 89, wrote of the secrecy, betrayal and treachery of the espionage world with an authority of a man who had lived in it (Press Association, 12/14/20)
    -OBIT: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy author John le Carré has died, aged 89: The literary giant's spy novels were perfect stories for film and TV adaptations. (Patrick McLennan, 14th December 2020, Radio Times)
    -OBIT: John le Carré, author of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dies aged 89 : Thriller writer most famous for stories of complex cold war intrigue began his career as a real-life spy in postwar Europe (Richard Lea and Sian Cain, 13 Dec 2020, The Guardian)
    -OBIT: John le Carré, legendary spy novelist, has died at 89. (Emily Temple, December 14, 2020, Lit Hub)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré was a 21st century writer: On his death, the establishment is patronising England's great novelist as a Cold War figure, rather than confonting why he hated them (Anthony Barnett, 14 December 2020, openDemocracy)
    -TRIBUTE: Farewell John le Carré, one of modern literature’s most substantial talents: The respected author of classic espionage novels such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has died at the age of 89. Martin Chilton pays tribute to his exquisite, pioneering talent (Martin Chilton, 12/14/20, Independent)
    -ESSAY: The don of disillusionment: John le Carré on film: The paranoia and cynicism of Carol Reed’s The Third Man fired Le Carré’s imagination, while Tomas Alfredson updated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the Iraq war era (Peter Bradshaw, 14 Dec 2020, The Guardian)
    -TRIBUTE: The unrivaled John le Carré (Matthew Walther, 12/14/20, The Week)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré’s Cold War: His masterful spy novels revealed a post-imperial Britain struggling to find its place in the world (ROB KILLICK, 14th December 2020, spiked)
    -AUDIO REMEMBRANCE: 'He Makes Us Love George Smiley:' Robert Harris On The Legacy Of John Le Carré (Mary Louise Kelly, 12/14/20, NPR All Things Considered)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré Knew England’s Secrets: He revealed more about the country’s ruling class than any political writer of his era. (TOM MCTAGUE, 12/14/20, The Atlantic)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré Missed Nothing (Anthony Lane, 12/14/20, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Blinding Clarity of John Le Carré: His novels of imperial decline speak to a world that has remained at war since his youth. (Siddhartha Deb, 12/17/20, The Nation)
    -TRIBUTE: John le Carré didn't invent the spy novel – he joined a tradition and made it new again(William Boyd, 18 Dec 2020, The Guardian)
-ESSAY: The Secret Life: John le Carré: In the end, one suspects, John le Carré remained an enigma even to himself (JASON COWLEY, 2015, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: From cold warrior to Tory radical (PETER LOVE, May 2012, Inside Story)
    -ESSAY: TINKER, TAILOR SOLDIER, SPY AND THE GREATEST OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY EVER FILMED: It's just like your old office holiday parties except everyone's a spy, everyone's cheating, and a new world order is at stake (DWYER MURPHY, 12/18/20, Crime Reads)
    -REVIEW: of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre (NY Times, 1974)
    -REVIEW: of Silverview by John Le Carre (Philip Hensher , )
    -REVIEW: of Silverview (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Silverview (Adam Rosenheim, Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Silverview (David O. Stewart, Washington Independent Review of Books)
-REVIEW: of A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré    -REVIEW: of Private Spy (Robert Potts, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of A Private Spy (CHRISTIAN LORENTZEN, BookForum)
    -REVIEW: of Private Spy (Jeffery Meyers, The Article)
    -REVIEW: of Private Spy (Jennifer Wilson, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of A Private Spy (Peter Hitchens, The Lamp)
    -REVIEW: of
-REVIEW: of The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre (Michael Saler, TLS)

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)
    -John Le Carre (Stop You're Killing Me)
    -John Le Carre (Random House) 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)
    -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)

    -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)(
    -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!)

    -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)