John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) is a masterclass in intelligent, lean, ‘commercial’ fiction. He uses words efficiently. He uses them to tell a story. The technique is complete and always sufficient for the purpose. Never overkill. There’s enough description to ‘paint a picture’. Enough character development to give a sense of inner change. Enough dialogue to create realistic scenes. Enough action to create drama. Enough character view points to provide a sense of depth and perspective. Enough – but never too much.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a spy story. It’s possibly the Cold War spy story. It’s gritty. Len Deighton’s Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin follow on in this manner. While Ian Flemming’s James Bond lives in a world of luxury and glamour. Spy work is generally grubby and unglamorous, we are led to believe. It’s dirty work. Alec Leamas exists within this world. It’s grey and dreary. It’s mundane and common place. He’s an older man, cynical, past his best perhaps. Burnt out. Dispensable. Harry Palmer is younger, cheekily boyish, playful. Bond is the comic-book alpha male – wish-fulfilment.
Spy work is mostly boring. Boringly stressful. Tireless self-sacrifice. It requires the kind of dedication that calls on almost superhuman levels of self-control. It involves keeping oneself emotionally distant, apart – out of reach, psychologically self-sufficient. That emotional distance is necessary in order not to give the game away. It’s requires a certain ‘coldness’. The level of control goes to the point of suppressing one’s own identity. Living within an assumed identity. It’s a process that can break the subject. Literally turning them insane.
Harry Palmer and James Bond may face glamorised violence, but it’s never as real as the ongoing psychological pressure Leamas faces. Most fictional secret agents are too busy seducing women, attending cocktail parties, or perfecting their wardrobe style. Harry Palmer is the common man transposed into the spy world. Bond is a fantasy, a seductive cliché of the comic book spy. Harry Palmer is a working-class hero who doesn’t enjoy killing people. Bond is a cultured psychopath. An aristocrat of sorts, hobnobbing with the elite in their casinos, strutting about in his fancy dinner suit. The ‘gentleman’ spy. A heroic psychopath. He murders his enemies and cracks infantile jokes about their gruesome death. We like him because he’s entertaining, an alpha-male, our monster unleashed on the enemy – it’s okay because he’s on our side. Alec Leamas is more of a pawn, enduring the horror of the world.
The story is told in third person, mostly from the viewpoint of Alec Leamas, and to a lesser extent Liz Gold. Some sections are omniscient but are used to move the story forward without getting in the way. They are not used to provide a space for the author to interject his opinions. All experience, internal thoughts, interpretations and making sense of the world takes place through the character viewpoint. John le Carré’s use of viewpoints is disciplined. They are there to deliver the story. Although it’s a third person viewpoint it often feels like it’s written in first person. We get inside the head of the character. But, John le Carré holds back on the information he provides to the reader. The plot reveals depend on this.
What kind of story is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold?
It’s a Cold War spy story. It’s love story. It’s a con story (confidence trick). It’s a courtroom drama. It’s a story about identity. About alienation and trust, or, conversely, about seeking connection and humanity. And it’s a tragedy.
Alec Leama’s has lost his soul. He may be middle aged and jaded. He may have sold his soul to Smiley and the Circus. He may be a patriot. He might have nothing left in his own life to live for. Either way – he’s lost his humanity. Liz Gold the sweet and naïve assistant librarian helps him to rediscover it. One of the themes of the story is that in fighting the monster our means of combatting the enemy become equally monstrous.
Does Leamas really love Liz?
He probably does, at least semi-consciously, during the affair. This is something John le Carré conceals from the reader. Even though we see inside the mind of Leamas, we only get to see the things John le Carré wants us to see. It’s highly selective. Leamas does appear to love Liz later on. He consciously decides that she represents the ‘meaning’ in his life. He rejects his spy identity (the cold). He makes a moral decision, and acts on it accordingly. This is what coming in from the cold implies. It’s more than forsaking operational duties to become a civilian. It’s letting go of a brutalised military identity, the ‘cold’ operative who obeys orders. It’s about opening himself up to the warmth of a real human connection – his love for Liz. This also makes him vulnerable. A dangerous thing for a spy. Human warmth is a luxury any proficient spy must shun if they wish to survive.