Cool runnings

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

By John le Carré

Graham Greene called this the best spy book he’s ever read. I can see what he means, although it’s not as good as le Carré’s The Perfect Spy. Cold is a gripping read, filled with dreadful atmospheres and secreted glances. It is everything a spy book should be: page-turning but also able to say something about humanity in its darkest moments.

The book follows Alec Leamas, a contemporary of George Smiley, as he is despatched on a unique mission to arrange the elimination of an enemy in East Germany. If le Carré’s plotting is authentic, then top intelligence agents are surely some of the best novelists on the planet (Stella Rimington notwithstanding). It is tight, controlled and full of surprises to the reader, all the time implying careful design. Nothing happens by chance in the spy world, le Carré seems to say, everything is plotted by someone, somewhere.

The most enjoyable aspect of the book is guessing whether a particular turn or revelation is serving Leamas, his seniors, his enemies or just le Carré in pushing on the plot. That’s thrilling to experience, and it leaves you not confused, just anxious that eventually all will be clear. As in the real world of spooks, not everything is always clear here, but that’s not to say le Carré leaves plot holes. He’s far too good for that.

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