The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the book that first made John le Carré’s name (or made John le Carré, a pseudonym famous.) John le Carré was a spy, who became a writer. He came to prominence at about the same time Ian Fleming was becoming famous with James Bond. In many ways he was the anti-Bond.
Bond is known for action and individualism. George Smiley is over weight and a bit dumpy. He is an intellectual and an analyst. Carré’s books are slow and have complex plots. Fleming’s books are much shorter, are much more action based and idealize the work of a spy.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is the first of le Carré’s books that I have re-read. And it reminds much how soul deadening that le Carré makes intelligence work. There is some action and some understanding of the west being on the right side of the cold war. But that doesn’t mean that the west is always right in their actions. John le Carré is an author that if he had not read Niebuhr, he at least understood the basic concepts that Niebuhr wrote about in the Irony of American History.
I also enjoy the little jabs that le Carré always has for the Americans in his books. The spies of the Circus are partners with the Americans but they don’t always like the Americans or the way that they work.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is about a spy that in enticed to go over to the bad guys (although it isn’t clear initially which set of bad guys he is defecting with) in order to give a false trail. You don’t know until the very end why the false trail is being given.
Smiley is only a minor character in this book. But his sense of right and wrong, which is tested throughout the series, is that this operation is wrong. In many ways the result of the mission proves Smiley right. There is some good that comes out of it. But the means of getting that right is probably wrong. Which seems to be to be the broader point of the book.
It has been several years since I read le Carré and I had forgotten the hopelessness of the series. In many ways I am not sure how you write about intelligence work in a way that is both real and not hopeless. When I read le Carré I want to become a pacifist. Then I read history and I am reminded why I have not become a pacifist.