open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
After reading John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I immensely liked and enjoyed, my curiosity for George Smiley was piqued. I knew he’d been introduced in le Carré’s previous works, Call of the Dead and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, so when I was reading TTSS, I felt like I didn’t know him well enough to form a real opinion of him. I had to go back to discover who he really was. Thus began my quest for Smiley.
Naturally, I should’ve picked Call Of The Dead but alas the bookstore didn’t have that one and I ended up getting The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. This book, unfortunately, didn’t have a lot on Smiley – although, as readers will find out later in the book, he makes an appearance and shows himself to be a sympathetic character – but what I found within the pages is quite possibly more enticing than good ol’ George. His name is Alec Leamas and he’s the spy the Circus left out in the cold.
I won’t talk about the plot of the book; to do so would be to give the story and its twisted turns away. Part of the reason why the book is so phenomenal is because of those twists, so it wouldn’t do to be spoiled. But it’s not just the scary plot that charges the book but it’s the question of morality that hangs overhead the entire twisted story of espionage, counter-espionage, alliances and betrayals. Remember the phrase “All is fair in love and war”? Well, that rings particularly true here. Everything is fair when it comes to trying to triumphing over the enemies, including deception, manipulation and trickery.
What’s interesting is that each and every character featured in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is firmly standing on the grey area. Everyone is suspect and, as a reader, I can’t trust any of them. Since the beginning, I already questioned the motivations the characters had, from Leamas and Karl Riemeck to Control and Liz Gold, and even the grocer. I suppose it’s the point le Carré was trying to get across: the real espionage job is dangerous and it’s better to be cautious at all times and not trust too many people.
There can be no doubt that the writing is exquisite. It’s a suspenseful thriller novel. This particular book also has the distinction of being particularly powerful… and not in an entirely good way. le Carré’s stories are layered and complex (sometimes due to the portrayal of bureaucracy in the books) so they require you to think. In this book’s case, readers are made to think by the level of deception involved in the plot. The denouement doesn’t really happen at the most opportune moments; in fact, I felt the revelation of what’s really going on happened too late and too fast for my brain to catch up with. And, typically with le Carré’s books, sometimes even after The Big Reveal, it’s still difficult to get the Whys and the Hows.
This is what The Spy Who Came In From The Cold can do for you, as it did to me: the story pulls you in, hooks you to its characters, makes you care and finally, for all your troubles, it delivers a hard, painful blow to the stomach. And you still end up being impressed anyway because, man, that was ONE HELL of a blow.
True, the ending is rather disenchanting. The romantic in me wants me to kick the book away and never see it again. I would’ve written it off as a disappointing read that I would never read again for the rest of my life. But I wouldn’t be able to do that. The book is seriously marvelous: it is good writing, masterful plotting and careful character-developing. Phenomenal is the only way I can describe it.
If there’s an author from today (post-9/11 era) who can write a so-called historical spy novel set during the Cold War and make me love it half as much as I do John le Carré’s works on the same subject, I will already worship them for life.
* Originally posted on Goodreads, 13 March 2012.