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‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ by John Le Carre was first published in 1963. The novel is set during this interesting, tense and dangerous point in time when the Cold War was at its peak. The central character is a British spy named Alec Leamus. He is an unusual choice for a secret agent because unlike those of the James Bond genre he is not interested in fast cars, beautiful women and hi-tech gadgets. He is good at his job and seems to enjoy what he is doing. Le Carre tells the story of how Leamus rejected the cruel ‘ends justify the means’ style of espionage and eventually ‘came in from the cold’.
The plot, although seemingly quite simple, has a large and complicated twist in its core that can confuse the reader. The novel begins by introducing Alec Leamus and tells how his entire spy ring was eliminated one by one. After Leamus’ best spy, Karl Riemeck, is shot dead, Control (the leader of the British Spy Organisation) summons Leamus to his office. Here Leamus is given details of a new mission the objective of which is to get rid of a top East German spy called Hans-Dieter Mundt. In the book Mundt is described as having a, “… Blank, hard face. ”
Hans-Dieter Mundt is 42 years old and although he is not a man of morals or religious beliefs he does have a passionate hatred for Jews, which is probably the reason why he was a Nazi party member before he joined the East German Spies. The East German Spy Organisation is related to the Communist Party and this means Mundt is able to continue following his extremist views and put his skills to work in espionage at the same time. After the meeting with Control Leamus acts the part of a man in decline. After “leaving” the spy service he becomes an alcoholic and generally a man with a chip on his shoulder.
He is provided with a job in a library, which is where he meets a young Communist Party member by the name of Liz Gold. Liz is between 22 and 23 years of age and portrayed as being; “… Tall, ungainly and with a long waist and long legs. ” As well as; “… Somewhere between plainness and beauty. ” After spending a considerable amount of time together Liz and Leamus become lovers, unaware of exactly how well this fits in with Control’s plans. Soon after the relationship begins Leamus is struck down by an illness and Liz tenderly nursed him back to health.
Almost immediately after his recovery Leamus is sent to prison for punching a greengrocer who wouldn’t allow him to buy goods on credit. During the four months Leamus spends in prison he proves that he is more than capable of looking after himself, engaging in a fight with one of the inmates. After his release from prison Leamus is contacted by a man named Ashe (a fellow spy). After this meeting Leamus moves to people further up the chain of command in the spy ring. Next he meets Kiever, a man who organises a journey to Holland where Leamus is to meet an East German spy by the name of Fiedler.
Fiedler is a kindly Jew who works alongside Hans-Dieter Mundt for East Germany but suspects Mundt of being a traitor, He believes that Mundt is actually double-crossing East Germany and working as a mole for the British spies. Although Fiedler is not afraid of his partner Mundt’s loathing of Jews upsets him. Fiedler is desperate to be the one to capture Mundt and reveal that he is a traitor. The reader may feel that Fiedler wishes to do this for some sort of personal satisfaction or glory but it is because he believes in the cause.
Fiedler is a very philosophical man and like to find out why people believe in different things, whilst talking to Leamus he once asked about religious believers; “… If they do not know what they want How can they be so sure they’re right? ” When Fiedler initially meets Leamus the latter is interviewed for nearly two whole days. He is asked questions about numerous spy operations the British have carried out with special emphasis placed on ‘Operation Rolling Stone’. This was the code name given to the process used to give secret payments to a spy whose identity was unknown to Leamus.
Another darker aspect of the story is that Leamus, who is only pretending to be in the middle of a tragic breakdown, believes that he is participating in the interviews in order to help the British espionage catch Mundt. When, in actual fact it is him that the British spies are hunting. During these interviews Leamus discovers that his picture is being splashed all over British tabloids that are labelling him as a traitor, making it impossible for him to return Britain and slip quietly back into society.
Meanwhile people pretending to be ‘friends’ of Leamus begin visiting Liz, paying her rent and bills for her as part of Control’s strategy. After the first meeting with Fiedler Leamus crosses the Iron Curtain into the East of Germany to meet him again and discuss further details of payments (part of ‘Operation Rolling Stone’). After some new discoveries are made Fiedler believes he has Mundt cornered and is willing to take him to in front of a tribunal. Liz is invited to East Germany where Mundt has arrested Leamus and Fiedler.
When Liz arrives in Germany Mundt is interviewing Leamus and Fiedler has already been badly tortured under his orders. Even though he has been badly beaten Fiedler is still going to take his claims against Mundt in front of a tribunal. Shortly before the trial of Mundt is due to take place Fiedler and Leamus have a philosophical discussion about religion and beliefs. Fiedler asks Leamus about Christian philosophy, something Leamus knows nothing about, as he is not a religious man. During the discussion Fiedler quotes something Joseph Stalin once said;
“Half a million liquidated is a statistic, and one man killed in a traffic accident is a national tragedy. ” Fielder then went on to say that he would bomb a restaurant if it brought the party further along whereas Christians wouldn’t because, “… They believe in the sanctity of human life. ” After this conversation takes place Liz is taken to the trial against Mundt where Fiedler opens the case for the prosecution. The beginning of the trial of Mundt went well and the reader is able to see a fire, anger and passion in Fiedler that has not been discovered before.
Fiedler puts on a brilliant show and Mundt’s lawyers question Leamus before Liz is brought into the room. Liz does not understand what is going on and everything she says reflects badly on Leamus, virtually destroying his credibility. After this Leamus confesses that everything he has been doing for the past few months was part of a trap to help the British Spy Organisation catch Mundt. He then asks the tribunal to release Liz and Fiedler, as they had nothing with the plot. Fiedler is detained but Leamus and Liz are allowed to go free and cross the wall into West Germany.
But, as they climb the wall Leamus is betrayed by his fellow spies one final time. Just as he is about to climb over the wall Liz is shot dead by waiting soldiers. In the last few lines of the novel Leamus seals his fate, he steps down from the ladder and decides to die with his beloved and, in doing so finally comes in from the cold. Throughout the book different characters are used to show the difference between good, decent people and evil, callous people. Fiedler despite his loathing for the enemy, is one of the ‘good guys’ as well as being quite philosophical he held firm with his own beliefs throughout his entire ordeal.
Liz was another good person, quite simple and innocent but sacrificed by Control so that he might further himself. Liz paid a heavy price for the love that drew her to Leamus. Both Liz and Fiedler were used to meet the needs of Control and Mundt. These two are the ‘bad guys’; cold and ruthless, willing to go through anyone in order to achieve their goals. Leamus was in between these two types of people until the end of the novel when he chose Liz, humanity and goodness. After reading ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ I believe that I have found out why it is a spy story with a difference.
There are many things that set the novel apart from more modern spy stories such as James Bond or Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. Obviously in all three there is a romantic undercurrent running through the story but in Le Carre’s novel this love helps bring out something completely new in the central character and in turn helps define the whole tale. Also, this story has more realism in it than most spy books, the racial issue of anti-Semitism and the double-crossing of agents are all part of what makes this book one of the best.