The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was written and set in the early 1960s, a time of heightened tension in the Cold War, particularly in Berlin where East and West faced each other across the Berlin Wall. The book has managed the feat of being both a novel of its time and one that has stood the test of time. John le Carré says of the Wall, "I felt nothing but disgust and terror, which was exactly what I was supposed to feel: the Wall was perfect theatre as well as a perfect symbol of the monstrosity of ideology gone mad."
Published in 1963, John le Carré’s third novel achieved instant success at a time when the dark, secret world of espionage exerted a powerful fascination. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels had been enjoying great popularity since 1953 and the first 007 film, Dr No, was released in 1962 . Also in 1962, Len Deighton’s Ipcress File was published; the film of the book came out in 1965, the same year as the film of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Both were popular at a time when the threat of nuclear war between the USA and the USSR was perceived to be very real.
Against this background, le Carré's twisting, complex tale of the dark, ruthless world of espionage grabbed the public’s imagination. The grim, grey atmosphere surrounding the Berlin Wall and all it symbolised comes across vividly in the first chapter, which sets the scene for the unfolding story. The central protagonist, world-weary and morose Alec Leamas, is humourless, cynical, and a man of few words. His character is echoed by the tautness of le Carré’s prose. When he sets out to become a down-at-heel, belligerent drunk, this is not so far removed from his reality as the taciturn spy who has lost his last agent.
One possible criticism is the rapidity of Leamas’s downhill slide, and his equally hasty relationship with Liz Gold. But although this section is condensed, it can be justifed as a necessary progression of the plot, leading to the critical scenes in East Germany and the revelation of the whole complicated operation. And building up a fictitious persona is for Leamas, as an experienced Intelligence officer, a straightforward process. As for Liz and her genuine love for Leamas, she comes across as a rather sad, if not downright desperate character. Her membership of the Communist Party seems to stem more from a need for companionship and a sense of belonging than any deeply held conviction. Perhaps the honest and naïve Liz is too much of a contrast with the manipulative world Leamas inhabits, making her an obvious victim, so that her end is not so surprising. But le Carré hides his twists and turns well. He teases the reader from time to time with glimpses of a small bespectacled man popping up at pivotal moments when Leamas is on the move, a man who can only be George Smiley.
The novel is circular, in that it begins and ends at the Berlin Wall with the death of an agent, providing a neat, albeit bleak conclusion. Throughout, it questions the morality of the means employed to achieve the aims of democratic societies, which are the same as those used by the East. At the time of its publication there was some criticism of this, and of the character of Leamas as the anti-hero. The Times commented that "the hero must triumph over his enemies, as surely as Jack must kill the giant... If the giant kills Jack, we have missed the whole point of the story." Leamas, in the end, is 'killed by the giant', choosing love over loyalty to the Circus and the normality of human life over the alienation of the professional spy. In his own, fatal way, he comes in from the cold.
Graham Greene: "the best spy story I have ever read"
Daphne du Maurier: "Superbly constructed, with an atmosphere of chilly hell."
The Sunday Times: "A topical and terrible story"
Time Magazine 1964: "Even if John le Carré's book isn't authentic, nobody except another certified spy can be sure."
Time Magazine: "a first rate thriller and more, a sad, sympathetic portrait of a man who has lived by lies and subterfuge for so long, he's forgotten how to tell the truth."
Amazon.com : "the jewelled clockwork plot."
Newsweek: "le Carré is simply the world's greatest fictional spymaster."
Ben McIntyre, The Times: "it sets the standards for all spy literature."