Some inevitable spoilers below if you haven't read the book or seen the film!
I had somehow never got on much with John le Carré, though I'd certainly started a couple of his novels over the years. However, this was the first time I'd tried to read his breakthrough 3rd novel "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" and it lived up to its reputation. The ultimate cold war thriller, it begins with an ending, the attempt of a contact in East Germany to get West after his cover is blown. Using the pre-arranged cover documents he gets as far as the No Mans Land at Checkpoint Charlie, with his agent waiting anxiously at the other side. He is killed just yards from safety, and with it the ring of informers that Alec Leamas has been cultivating is finally no more, having been wiped out in a number of weeks. Called back to London, he expects this to be the moment when the secret service lets him go, the inability to infiltrate East Germany after the wall has gone up, highlighting the impotency of his own side in "The Circus." Yet, they still have a use for Leamas, one last job. There are lose ends to tie up, and a plan to take down the German who has been destroying their network, the notorious Mundt.
The book changes gear, as without letting the reader on to the detail, we follow Leamas in his cover, as a down on his heels and resentful ex-spy, kicked to a desk job then out of the service, drinking too much, with no money. He finally hits rock bottom when he hits a man and ends up in prison. On coming out of prison he is approached, a series of Soviet agents take him on and he agrees to turn for a price. The road leads not to redemption and escape but to beyond the wall, as its an East German Jew Fiedler who is the man paying for his information. In isolation in East Germany he spills the beans, and the information he gives - including the minor apparently inconsequential information is enough to ensnare Mundt who is their shared target. Fiedler suspects Mundt of being a British spy. Leamas's information, a back story built up to ensnare Mundt is a clever construction that confirms what Fiedler already thinks. At one point the operation is blown as Mundt's men come to them and both Fiedler and Leamas get badly beaten up, though the latter has killed one of his assailants. Taken to the Polish border for a secret court, the true surprise of the novel is revelaed to Leamas at the same time as the reader. For Leamas had a brief affair whilst in his down and out phase with Liz, a young idealistic communist in the library he started doing some temporary work at. Though he had kept her out of his former life, he had told her that he would have to leave to do some other work, and that it would be goodbye - and to protect her, she should not try and follow him. This turns out to be the corroboration that is needed to prove that its a set up job - for after Leamas has gone to prison, his old "friends" at The Circus, including George Smiley, John le Carré's supreme creation, come to visit her, and more importantly pay off her debts. Mundt knows all this and has engineered the dupe that is Liz to visit East Germany, where she is now brought into court. Knowing the game is up, Leamas tries to take on the blame, but admits it all, knowing that both of them plus Fiedler could die.
For Mundt actually is the prime asset of "Control" - the East German network that Leamas was working was one step down, but only Mundt could provide that level of access. Having a spy at the top of the German secret services was worth any kind of collateral damage, and once the diligent and ideological Fiedler began suspecting his own boss, it became a necessity to protect Mundt. Leamas, in an echo of his author's dislike of the service he was working for, is already of the view that the world they work in is dirty and corrupt, but this proves to him that his own side is worse or no better than the other side. Yet he has undertaken his side of the bargain - he wants to be the spy who comes in from the cold. Liz, who has given him reason to try, to live, is also the necessarry bait for the double cross. Yet Mundt and his own side are able to give them a last chance, if only they can get back over the wall in a short interval when the lights will be looking elsewhere.
All of the above is plot, but the novel's power - now as then, I imagine - is partly due to what
le Carré had noticed as the wall went up - this was more than a physical wall, but a metaphorical one, a psychic one, separating out one side from the other, with a cruel brutality at its crossing point, which offered a brilliant structure for any novel about spies. Almost contemporaneous with its erection, in this book he virtually invented the cold war thriller. Whereas Fleming's Bond was amoral but on the side of the angels, here, the ambiguity and the double-crossing is built into the game. Black is white, white is black. Yet though there's this dark European sensibility at play, the book is successful as a thriller, a taut, concise series of vignettes - there is the Orwell-styled fall into dissolution, the cat and mouse game as Leamas gets picked up and prepared to betray his side, the tense one-to-one of the interviews with Fiedler, and the final set piece of the court scene with Mundt; in between there are brief flashes of violence, and a few scenes where the complexities of the operation on the British side are fleshed out.
The book was a bestseller and from being a spy who wrote in his spare time, now le Carré was and would continue to be one of the most anticipated novelsits in the world. The mentions of "Control", "The Circus" and Smiley in this book read like familiar cues to even someone like myself who has hardly read him, so popular have the tropes been - alongside the cinematic versions - yet Smiley's books would be later. Leamas is a useful fool, a man without past, and without future, and the final scenes at the Wall, bleak, without redemption, are a powerful end to the book. It is hard to imagine a modern editor letting such an ending through - yet its critical, I think.
What I enjoyed was how contemporary it read, despite its world now being pure history, albeit one in the memory. I suspect one of the reasons the author is always held in such respect is the modernity of his prose. Certainly the cod-cold war of Ian McEwan's "The Innocent" and even the more comic "Sweet Tooth" exist in the world that le Carré describes here. That said, there's the tautness of the good thriller, the popular bestseller. The convolutions of plot don't quite all tie up, but that's okay as well, as the double bluff of the spy world means that nothing is quite as it is. The logic is tight enough, and the unravelling at a particular time - that slow release of secrets is deftly employed.
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