John Le Carre chronological challenge 3

I had forgotten how long it had been since I had last read Le Carre's breakthrough novel The spy who came in from the cold; but looking back through Bookhound, it was pre-Bookhound days, so a long time ago (Bookhound recently celebrated its 7th birthday. Happy Birthday Bookhound!).

It must have been a long time, since I had completely forgotten what a stunning novel Spy who came in from the cold is. It's been interesting reading Le Carre's novels chronologically, I finally realised how beautifully the earlier novels fitted together, and also how they give some clues towards his future direction.

For example, in my earlier posts about Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People, I commented on the portrayals of Karla and Smiley as reverse sides of the same coin. This becomes more evident in The Spy who came in from the Cold as it reveals the dodgy morality at the heart of the Cold War. Even the likeable Smiley cannot altogether be trusted, as is revealed in Spy, when what appeard to be the kindest of actions can be open to a very different interpretation.

Spy who came in from the cold tells the story of Alec Leamas, MI6 operative and Head of Station in West Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Leamas has been running a highly placed spy ring in East Berlin, but the ring is collapsing and Leamas' top spy will fall prey to Mundt (previously seen as the callous killer, who attempted to murder Smiley, in Call for the dead). MI6 has plans to topple Mundt though, and Leamas may be just the man to do it. Leamas desperate to avenge his missing agents enthusiastically follows Control's lead, but gradually begins to realise that all is not as it seems, and that he and MI6 are playing a very dangerous game in which innocent lives will be at stake.

It's a truly icy tale as Le Carre examines the moral conflicts thrown up by war (even one as cold as that of the 1960s). Agents on both sides are shown to be loyal and often courageous. The moral ambiguity often causes confusion for the reader - I was firmly on the side of Leamas and the British Secret Service, but then....what about the spies that we are running on the "other side" - the ex-Nazis, some seriously unpleasant characters, does dealing with dirt for the sake of the "greater good" ever make it right? And what about the loyalty and courage of those who, through an accident of birth quite often, happen to be on the other side?

As the novel plays its way out and the ex-Nazi Mundt and the former refugee, Fiedler, are brought into sharp contrast, the reader is forced to evaluate their own beliefs and sympathies.

Spy was Le Carre's third novel, and he's now firmly at home in his own authorial skin. There is a wonderful sureness about the writing. This is a writer who is where he belongs. It's a stunning piece of spy fiction. One of the very best. No-one wrote colder, icier spy fiction than John Le Carre, he was the jewel in a very Cold War.


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