The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, John LeCarré (Victor Golloncz, 1963 {Penguin Audio, Narrator: Michael Jayston)

(Espionage, Spy Novel, Mystery)

spywhocameinfromthecoldAudioGrade: Α — (Alpha) Great book, must read regardless of what genres you enjoy.  Makes you think of things beyond the scope of the book

In brief:

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the dark, gritty and tremendously realistic spy novel that launched John LeCarré‘s career.  Said by some to be the best espionage novel ever written, it’s certainly one of my top two. I would highly recommend this for any reader, particularly those who like thoughtful mysteries written in a literary style. For my full review go to


Cold War Britain, Holland and Germany, early 1960’s.

In Depth:

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the third novel by John LeCarré and arguably the best espionage book ever written.[1] Certainly it’s one of my top two. It is a stand alone novel, but also serves as the third of his “George Smiley” books.  What is more, it is a direct sequel to his first novel, Call for the Dead[2] and while one can pick up one without having read the other, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold contains many spoilers for Call for the Dead (including telling the reader how the first book ends). That being the case, I’d suggest reading Call for the Dead first, then this. Both are remarkably short, easy reads, and many of the characters and story lines introduced in Call for the Dead set the stage for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

spy whoAs for the story itself, LeCarré’s breakthrough novel begins with Alec Leamas, the Circus’[3] Station Head for West Berlin, watching his entire network of spies beyond the Wall[4] get rolled-up – most if not all of them killed. Understandably burnt-out and cynical, Leamas is called back to Britain and offered one last job by Control (Head of the Circus): the chance to burn Mundt, the man responsible for killing all his agents. Leamas agrees, and supported by George Smiley,[5] he begins his dark gritty journey back into the depths of the Cold War.

What makes this novel stand out so much from almost any other spy novel is two fold.  First, as with all of LeCarré’s spy novels, it focuses on the darker side of espionage.  It shows the moral ambiguity of spying; the lies, the deceit, the set-ups and their impact on both the agents and the people whose lives they touch. It reveals how living a life in the shadows impacts the individuals involved,[6] and that sympathetic, even good people, can work on either side of a ideological divide.

Richard Burton as Leamas in the movie version of the book.  It was a reasonable adaptation, but nothing compared to the novel.

Richard Burton as Leamas in the movie version of the book. It was a reasonable adaptation, but nothing compared to the novel.

Secondly, and most importantly, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold stands out because of its writing. As was the case in Call for the Dead the use of symbols is subtle and brilliant, but that is nothing to what he does with his descriptions.  In this, his third book, LeCarré constantly describes the mundane, both things and people.  The fourth volume of an archaeology book in a library that has no other volumes in the set, the uppity waiter in the grimy airport café, the pudgy little clerk-like man reading his newspaper, the plain wooden seats in a meeting hall, and all manner of every day items of dingy 1960’s life.  With this, he both develops setting and atmosphere, and from time to time, hides absolutely key bits of information that comes in to play later.  He does this both simultaneously and seamlessly so that one is drawn into Leamas’ life as one is also told exactly what subterfuges are happening – if one is paying attention.

To that end, this book really is a masterpiece, and certainly deserves its place in both spy literature and literature as a whole.  If you are expecting an action tale of spy-on-spy combat, well this ain’t it, but if you want to read a well written, thoughtful book, then pick up this up.

spywhocameinfromcoldmovie2Notes about the Audio Edition:

This Go Audio production for Penguin Audio’s LeCarré collection is a marvelously produced book narrated by the talented Michael Jayston.

For those who haven’t figured it out yet, Michael Jayston is probably my favorite audio book narrator, and here he exceeds even his normally fantastic standard.  I would highly recommend listening to the audio version of this book, perhaps even over reading it, and that’s saying something.

[1] Personally, I prefer LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but only by a very small margin.  Time magazine listed The Spy Who Came In From the Cold in their Top 100 Books Of All Time (16 October 2005), and Publisher’s Weekly named it as the #1 Spy Novel of All Time (a list that did not include Tinker, Tailor, but did include some James Bond stuff, so take that for what it’s worth).

[2] Technically, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold carries on after LeCarré’s second novel, A Murder of Quality which like Call for the Dead, also stars George Smiley, but one loses nothing in the telling if one skips Murder, which is more of a crime novel than an espionage piece anyway.  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold contains no significant spoilers for Murder. Well, one knows that Smiley lives through it, but then again, since there are so many other books in the Smiley canon, that is hardly a surprise.

[3] Read: British Secret Service – sort of MI5.5 in that it seems to cover both foreign and domestic issues, but I suspect it’s more MI6 than MI5.

[4]Berlin Wall… not George R.R. Martin’s Wall… silly goose.

[5] If you’re thinking this doesn’t sound so much like a George Smiley novel as an Alec Leamas novel, well you’re right.  George is a very shadowy background character in this book, but he is there all the same and plays an important, albeit tertiary, role.

[6] To say more, would be spoilerific, but let’s just say there’s a reason why LeCarré is often viewed as the anti-Ian Flemming.  While Flemming’s James Bond is romanticized despite the fact he is effectively an assassin who leaves a trail of dead men and women behind him, LeCarré seldom has more than one or two acts of violence in his book, usually very brief and understated.  Instead, he shows the ramifications not only of that violence, but of the other shadowy set-ups, blackmails, and similar elements of duplicity and betrayal that make up a spy’s arsenal.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Chronicle, Cycle, Espionage, Identity, Mystery, Part of A Series but can be Read without reading previous volumes, Series, Stand Alone Novel, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Thoughtful Espionage Tale, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, John LeCarré (Victor Golloncz, 1963 {Penguin Audio, Narrator: Michael Jayston)

  1. Pingback: John le Carre – The Night Manager and A delicate Truth | 51stories

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