- The Good: Cold war spy novel that is the antithesis of James Bond
- The Bad: Dialogue-heavy, boring, unlikeable characters
- The Literary: Highly awarded novel on multiple best-novel-of-all-time lists
Alec Leamas asks to retire from the intelligence agency after all his operatives are killed, but Control convinces Leamas to stay for one last assignment to defect to East Germany and frame Hans-Dieter Mundt, a major player in the communist intelligence hierarchy. In order to convince the East Germans Leamas’ defection is genuine, he is fired, becomes an alcoholic, and accidentally befriends Liz Gold, the secretary of her local Communist Party of Great Britain branch.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a Cold War era spy novel that shuns the glamorous portrayal of James Bond espionage, instead focusing on a burnt-out protagonist who ruins his life at the hands of two amoral countries only concerned with national security. In summary, it’s quite a depressing book. Good does not vanquish evil. You might sympathize with Leamas as he is manipulated at every turn, but his own defeatist attitude only adds to the unpleasant reading experience.
If you enjoy spy novels, you’ll appreciate the precision of the plot, as Leamas fulfills his defection, is brought into East Germany, and is subsequently interrogated for months. He spends time with his guard, Jens Fiedler, a Jewish East German spy and Mundt’s deputy, where the two discuss philosophical matters. Fiedler is a thoughtful idealist and believes in the cause, whereas Leamas is pragmatic, cynical, and bleak. All the while, Liz is being handled back in Britain and Mundt’s terror overshadows everything.
Without spoiling the ending, I will say the story only becomes more and more tragic. I understand the importance of this book in the spy genre as an antidote to the almost saccharine cookie-cutter regurgitation of glorified British spies, notably without the shiny car chases, gadgets, and fun. However, I find the characters difficult to root for (which is intentional in the anti-hero Leamas), and therefore the espionage is without stakes, and ultimately the plot becomes rather boring. So much so that the various reveals of the denouement are just another terrible outcome of terrible people and corrupt organizations.
If you’re looking for a fun action-packed spy read, look elsewhere. Recommended for fans of the espionage thriller genre who are ready for a dialogue-heavy slow-moving anti-Bond tragedy.