This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a fitting time to recall a novel that came, for many, to characterize the complications and unhappy compromises of post-war Europe.
It’s the early 1960s, and Alec Leamas is working for The Circus (British clandestine organization), running spies in Berlin during the Cold War. He watches as one of his double agents, while trying to cross into West Germany, is gunned down. Soon after, Leamas is recalled to England which he assumes will be the beginning of the end of his career whereby he’ll be unceremoniously filed away at some desk job left to rot. Instead his boss (codenamed Control) asks him to stay out in the cold a little bit longer and help them catch a top spy. The Circus realizes that the alcoholic, down-on-his-luck Leamas will be too enticing for the communists to resist. Leamas further sweetens the deal by getting himself thrown in jail for six months and doubling down on his alcohol intake. It works. He’s spotted by the East German intelligence service known collectively as the Abteilung who slowly begin wining and dining him until he’s taken to the Netherlands, then to East Germany for further questioning.
George Smiley was the central character of LeCarré’s first two novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. The beauty of Smiley’s presence in The Spy is that he is, for the most part, just a presence in the background. He is the puppeteer, if you will, albeit a very strong mastermind who’s pulling the strings. Control claims that Smiley isn’t particularly happy with the plan that they have concocted and, later, when The Circus meets with Leamas for a covert update, they choose Smiley’s home for the meeting, but he’s conveniently not there. When Leamas is being whisked away by the enemy to begin his interrogation, Smiley is watching Leamas at the airport:
As they pushed their way through the revolving glass door, Leamas looked back. Standing at the newspaper kiosk, deep in a copy of the Continental Daily Mail, stood a small, froglike figure in glasses, an earnest, worried little man. He looked like a civil servant. Something like that.
Smiley and his loyal assistant, Peter Guillam, show up to question Leamas’s girlfriend, a woman named Liz Gold. It’s quite obvious, by this point, that Smiley is very much involved, right down to the detail of indirectly using the man’s girlfriend to further their mission without his knowledge.
But The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is Alec Leamas’s story, and he ultimately ends up under the cross-examination of a man named Fiedler, who rightly suspects that the information the Brit is funneling is in no way remarkable. Fiedler instead wants information on a secret file labeled as Rolling Stone of which Leamas only has meager knowledge, though Fiedler keeps pushing him about it. Fiedler and Leamas engage in weighty philosophical discussions, where the English spy’s cynical look at his business and the world-at-large is challenged by Fiedler’s more idealistic views. It’s this striking, though-provoking contrast that justifiably put John LeCarré’s novel on the map, though in a 1991 introduction to The Looking Glass War, he made a poignant rebuke to some elements of his own classic:
The Spy had been heralded as the book that ripped the mask off the spy business, my private view was that it had glamorised the spy business to Kingdom Come.
Eventually, Fiedler comes to believe a man named Mundt (a character featured in the first George Smiley novel, Call for the Dead)—who he works for—is secretly employed by The Circus. Mundt discovers what’s happening, and Leamas and Fiedler are arrested, placed on trial where Liz is called as the surprise witness.
The climatic ending (and that’s an understatement) occurs as Leamas escapes with Liz, making a run for the Berlin Wall. But as Leamas sits perched on top of the barrier separating the two republics with Smiley encouraging him to leap for freedom, the cynical spy comes to realize that he does believe in something after all. Those final moments will stick with you like no other spy novel you’ll ever read.