Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

So, in my ongoing effort to read classic novels, I recently picked up John le Carré's seminal 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It's the story of Alec Leamas, an MI6 (British intelligence) officer during the Cold War who defects and begins giving secrets to the East Germans, or does he? He may be on his final mission before retirement ("coming in from the cold" being when he's able to step out of the cold of spy work and into the warmth of regular life). Apparently the only books in the spy genre up until that point had been along the lines of James Bond kinda stuff. John le Carré had worked (and when he wrote this book, was working) as an intelligence officer with MI6, he would retire after the international success of the novel. His approach was of the more realistic spy variety and not of the outlandish adventure type and this sort of turned the entire genre on its head and changed what was expected of a spy novel. Time magazine named this book one of its all-time top 100.

I admire Le Carré's dedication to keeping his story realistic, but I didn't exactly have a great time reading it. It starts off brilliantly, in the first chapter Leamas watches one of his contacts get murdered trying to cross from East back into West Berlin, and I just knew I was in the hands of a master writer who would take me on the ride of a lifetime. Well, that's not Le Carré's style. He slows it down and gives us a kind of portrait of a hard drinking, seen it all, kind of guy in Leamas. The problem I had with this was that we're not always privy to the knowledge that Leamas has, so we're not always sure where he's coming from, not sure what he's hiding from the other characters (as well as us), so it's not as dramatically interesting as it possibly could've been. I've heard great things about the movie directed by Martin Ritt and starring Richard Burton as Leamas. I want to check it out, and may amend this review once I've seen it. I think the slow-ish nature of the book might be sped up in the truncated time of a movie. We'll see.

So one more classic book down, a million to go. Not sure what's up next, but I'm always up for more.

1 comment:

Jump_Raven said...

I remember reading that book back in high school. I remember also either reading or starting to read another one of his books. It had the same problem of us not having enough information to know what's going on.

I don't remember the movie being frustrating like that, but it goes in the opposite direction of Bond like the book.