The Classics Reclamation Project is my personal challenge to read and enjoy the classics. Each Wednesday, I post about the classic I’m reading at the moment.
When I began my Classics Reclamation Project, I decided that one in eight books I read could be from the 1960s, which is a little later than what some may consider “classic” but which allowed me to include some books I’ve wanted to read and that will certainly become classics, if they haven’t already. The first such book I read was The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré. Published in 1963, this Cold War era spy novel was written by le Carré over a period of about five weeks while he lived in Germany.
I first read about The Spy Who Came In from the Cold on The Literate Man last fall. The review there intrigued me, even though I’ve never read le Carré and tend to avoid spy novels because, generally, they are not my cup of tea. I ended up finding myself quite absorbed in the book and am glad I gave it a chance.
Alec Leamas is near the end of his career, living and working for British Intelligence in Berlin in the late ’50s or early ’60s, when we meet him. The British agent has long served in his chosen career and is ready to be done. But when Leamas’s spymaster approaches him with a final assignment, Leamas finds himself caught up in the world of international espionage one more time.
When I think “spy novel,” I immediately think of heart-pounding action, thrilling chase scenes, and spectacular Hollywood-ready stunts. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold relies on none of those things. What it lacks in gunfights and car chases, however, le Carré’s third novel makes up for in tension and plot twists. Leamas’s is a mental and verbal game in which dropping his fine-tuned act, even for a moment, could cost our protagonist his life. As he moves, alone, deeper into his final mission, Leamas must constantly think on his feet while trying to keep one step ahead of the other guys. Le Carré doesn’t need action and spectacle to hold his reader rapt; his tense mind games and intricate puzzle of a plot are plenty enthralling and require the reader to pay attention. It was a treat to watch the story unfold.
Leamas is a more rounded character than my brief forays into spy novels have led me to expect. We only really know him in his assigned personality, as the persona he’s cultivated for his final mission. Yet glimpses of the real Leamas slip through, so that as the novel moves forward, we establish a feel for both versions of Leamas and how they might relate to one another. There are several other characters in the novel who come across as real people as well.
The supporting cast, to me, felt a little stereotyped: the agency big shots, the henchmen, the high profile bad guys. I wonder, though, if this difference was intentional. After all, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is about a few real human beings–Leamas included–who are caught up in the cruel machine of international espionage. How better to highlight these characters’ humanity than to place them amongst less sympathetic characters?
I think The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is the sort of spy novel that will appeal to readers who don’t tend to embrace the genre as well as ardent fans. I’m glad it found its way onto my classics project list.