Tuesday, August 9, 2011

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

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré, 1962

"I want you to stay out in the cold a little longer." Leamas said nothing, so Control went on: "The ethic of our work, as I understand it, is based on a single assumption. That is, we are never going to be aggressors. Do you think that's fair?"

Leamas nodded. Anything to avoid talking.

"Thus we do disagreeable things, but we are
defensive. That, I think, is still fair. We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. Is that too romantic? Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things"; he grinned like a schoolboy. "And in weighing up the moralities, we rather go in for dishonest comparisons; after all, you can't compare the ideals of one side with the methods of the other, can you, now?"

Leamas was lost. He'd heard the man talked a lot of drivel before getting the knife in, but he'd never heard anything like this before.

"I mean you've got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal. I would say that since the war, our methods--ours, and those of the opposition--have become much the same. I mean you can't be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government's
policy is benevolent, can you now?" He laughed quietly to himself: "That would never do," he said.

For God's sake, though Leamas, it's like working for a bloody clergyman. What
is he up to?

"That is why," Control continued, "I think we ought to try and get rid of Mundt. . . Oh really," he said, turning irritably towards the door, "Where is that damned coffee?"
--- (pages 15-16)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is probably one of the finest examples of plotting that I've ever encountered. It's a short book, not much over two hundred pages in my edition, and le Carré uses its brevity to masterfully, methodically wind the strands of story tighter and tighter. Spy is an exhilarating exercise in tension, understated atmosphere, diamond-hard prose and slow, subtle character development. It's no wonder why this one's a classic.

Alec Leamas is a spy without gadgets, guns or adventures. He's really more of an administrator, overseeing spy rings in Cold War-era Berlin, soon after the rise of the Wall. When the last agent under his command is killed, Leamas returns to England, anticipating retirement. Control, a high-ranking officer in the Circus, has one final mission for him: a dangerous gambit to bring down a crucial member of Berlin's secret police. As plots become layered on plots, Leamas finds himself trapped in a web of treachery, double-agents and deceit, where being human is the ultimate risk.

The plot of Spy is constructed with a thrilling delicacy, each small detail carefully worked out, the pieces fitting together like an elaborate piece of clockwork. What makes the story so exhilarating is its complete lack of glitz and glamour. No nuclear bombs set to blow, no elaborate action setpieces. The spies are more office drones than anything else--but this is a job where one mistake means death. The way le Carré weaves the story's strands together is pure craftsmanship.

At first, it seems as though character will take a back seat to plot in le Carré's world. Not so. Alec Leamas slowly emerges as a flesh-and-blood figure, a tired, burned-out man with nothing left to believe in. His opposite number, Mundt, is a cipher, as is the genial Fiedler, whose manners and poise may mask good, evil or some combination of the two. Only naive, gawky Liz Gold is basically pure of heart, unable to understand the cutthroat world of the man she loves. Above it all looms Control, the man holding the strings (but of what puppets?). These characters are simultaneously mythic and surprisingly everyday. Le Carré shows us who they are through his pitch-perfect dialogue.

Even given le Carré's reputation, I was taken aback by the quality of his prose. The man can say a lot with very little; there are no extraneous words (Elmore Leonard would be proud). The shoestring scenes of back-and-forth dialogue are maybe the tensest of all. Le Carré perfectly evokes a time, a place, an atmosphere, without ever coming out and showing us his hand. Understatement is his secret weapon, and he deploys it beautifully.

Ultimately, Spy offers both a penetrating look at a dark and amoral shadow war and a perfectly constructed story of espionage. There is something mildly revolutionary about le Carré's approach to his subject matter (and I'm sure it was more than mildly in 1962). His spy world is dirty and dangerous and dull, but without the shiny appeal of the James Bond series or TV's Alias. It's a world where the line between good and evil is practically nonexistent, and the feelings of the people trapped in the web don't matter at all. It's a novel with a lot of power and terrific resonance, as well as being seamlessly written and white-knuckle thrilling.

NEXT UP: Richard Adams' classic Watership Down.

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