Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Book review: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John Le Carré (1963)

Set in a time of heightened East-West tensions during the cold war, this modern classic novel tells the story of Alec Lemas, a British spy working in West Berlin. After being recalled to England in disgrace, Lemas is ordered to stay out "in the cold" - under cover - for one last mission: to defect to the East and provide false information to the Communists.

The mood of the period and the main characters are quickly established, and we're thrust into an already moving plot of exasperating complexity. The chilly fear of Lemas being followed, watched and scrutinised is conveyed with mouting suspense and expectation. Throughout the novel, Lemas's character is slowly revealed, but Le Carré always holds something back to keep the reader on the edge of the seat. Gone is the glamorous sophistication of James Bond's secret service; Le Carré depicts a brutal underworld of torture, bare-knuckle fights and desperate acts.

The real satifaction in the novel is of the reader being manipulated and led. The surprises and shocks are sudden and unsettling, and the final climactic scenes come all too soon as we become attached to Lemas and his awkwardness. Superbly constructed, this novel both defines the genre and stands out as a thrilling example of deception, espionage and gritty, matter-of-fact intelligence service business being carried out by real people with real fears and vunerabilities.

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