The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

I remember my parents raving about John Le Carre’s books back in the 1970s, and particularly about a character called George Smiley. I never got around to reading them. It was only after Le Carre died late last year that I bought a copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. That was his first novel, and the spark that lit the fire of his later fame. It wasn't the first of his books for me, however. I did pick up a copy of his last novel, Agent Running in the Field, on Audible last year.

It was great, as I've mentioned previously. Le Carre performed the read himself, which was a bit strange. He is an excellent narrator, and of course he understands the nuances of the text. But when he read it he was a very old man, and the narrator within the text is not. He is a middle aged spy at the end of his career. It was a great book, beautifully written, and very well performed, but… It took a while to get my head around the old man’s voice.

I should review it separately.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold I read on my Kindle. And I enjoyed it immensely. It was not 'like' reading an historical text. The book is so old, published in 1962 I think, that it effectively is an archival document. The writing was very modern, the pacing in particular. I think Le Carre may have been one of the great writers of the 20th century. He just happened to work in a genre which is mostly occupied by hacks and pulp artists. Like me.

What really struck me about this story, though, was how little it relied on technology. The shadow of Ian Fleming is so long that it’s unusual to read a spy novel these days that isn't full to pussy’s bow with amazing bits of kit.

The only piece of high technology in The Spy… was a very tiny camera. That's it. Not even a micro dot to be had. Pretty much everything that happens in that book is either an internal conflict, or plays out on the streets, with grim avatars and agents of East and West manoeuvring around each other in really skeevy clubs or sketchy looking back lanes. There is violence, deadly violence, but none of the highly choreographed martial arts malarkey that we’re used to. It's really basic and really fucking squalid.

In fact squalor, both moral and physical, is probably the defining characteristic of this book. I think it's why it shocked everybody when it came out. Alec Leamas, the putative hero, is objectively heroic but his armour does not shine. It is very rusty indeed. Even Smiley, who appears mostly offstage, is a deeply ambiguous character. I don't think that Le Carre intended him to be the cultural touchstone that he later became.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. Enough that I bought the first real George Smiley novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as soon as I finished.

I have a contract with Audible to write a spy novel this year. I'm not going to try and imitate the master. That's not what they paid for anyway. But I am going to read the rest of his work and see what I can draw from it.