I really do not know why I don’t read more spy thrillers – in Fantasy and Science Fiction novels, I love reading about intrigue and political maneuvering and those are after all what spy thrillers mostly consist of (or so one would think). I also enjoy watching spy movies (somewhat realistic ones, not the glamourized James Bond variety, but something along the lines of Three Days of the Condor). So it’s quite a mystery to me why the only spy novels I ever read were the ones forming the George Smiley trilogy by John le Carré, and that several decades back (after watching the TV show with Alec Guiness in the main role).
In any case, this is something I want to remedy, and what better place to start than John le Carré and the novel that made him famous, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Since it’s likely that everyone but me has already read the novel, there is not really much left to say about it, and I’ll restrict myself to one or two remarks.
One, I was struck while reading this by how much it reminded me of C. J. Cherryh. She is one of my favourite SFF authors, one of the few I kept following even when I took my extended break from speculative fiction, and one of the things I love about her novels are the tightly plotted intrigue and counter-intrigue, the double- and quadruple-crossings which mean that you usually have to pay really close attention to what is going on or you might miss an important detail that is necessary to understand the unfolding of events. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is quite similar to this, but with one significant difference (well, two – le Carré writes noticeably better than Cherryh whose prose tends towards the brittle), namely that this novel culminates in a surprise twist towards the end that explains everything that has been going on before and reveals all the hidden motivations, something you only very rarely get in Cherryh. I suspect this is the difference in genre making itself felt, Cherryh writing in the conventions of Science Fiction or Fantasy, le Carré in those of the crime novel (and they are both genre authors, even though they do push boundaries quite a bit).
Something else that I noticed (was even occasionally irritated by) is the dialogue, in particular when people get angry and start to shout – read today, those passages appear very stilted and not natural at all. This is not something unique to le Carré, I have noticed it in other British novels from the fifities and sixties before, and it makes me wonder if that means that people really used to talk differently back then or if it are the conventions of how to realistically represent dialogue that have changed.
That apart though, the novel does not feel dated at all – of course, the East-West conflict the plot centers around does not exist in this form anymore, which gives a bit of a historical perspective to the reader, but it still is an exciting read, and le Carré really excels in portraying moral ambiguity. While there never is any doubt that East Germany is a horrible place and that eastern communism is something that needs to be fought, there is nothing noble about how this fight plays out and the means the good guys use to win this war they are waging are as bad as, occasionally even worse than, anything the bad guys do.
At end of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold it turns out that the British were setting up an elaborate plot to prevent the discovery of one of their double agents who happens to be a violent anti-semite (and the Second World War as well as the shoah are still very present to everyone’s mind in this novel) as well as a ruthless killer. For this, Control and his cohorts are willing to sacrifice the life of an innocent woman for this and if not to actively engineer, to at least close their eyes on the death of one of their own agents.
Judging by the ethics of their actions, what distinguishes the good from the bad in this novel are not even shades of grey but only different shades of black. This is a grim novel, but a fascinating and eminently readable one, and I’m thinking of maybe reading through all of le Carré’s spy novels in chronological order.