Claire Bloom and Richard Burton as Liz Gold and Alec Leamas

Alec Leamas is recalled to a grimy, worn-out London. He has been running the Berlin section of British Intelligence. It is the early Cold War. Things have not been going well. He has been losing agents to Hans-Dieter Mundt, the head of the East German Secret Service, the Abteilung. As Control warns Leamas, Mundt’s efficiency is ruthless:

‘Ex-Hitler Youth and all that kind of thing. Not at all the intellectual kind of Communist. A practitioner of the cold war.’

‘Like us,’ Leamas observed drily. Control didn’t smile.

Control has brought Leamas back from Berlin to see if he is tired, burnt-out. Control muses on the ethics of their profession.

We have to live without sympathy, don’t we? That’s impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren’t like that really. I mean … one can’t be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold … d’you see what I mean?’

‘Coming in from the cold’ becomes a picture of not simply quitting espionage, but revealing to someone your innermost self -vulnerability, emotion, truth. Leamas is irritated by this self-reflection.

But there’s also another job for Leamas. “I want you to stay out in the cold a little longer.” Leamas must undertake another assignment, to neutralise a dangerous enemy, before he can retire from his chosen profession.

Sparse and blunt

What follows is a breathless, tersely-written and deftly-plotted tour-de-force of a thriller. John le Carre spares little time in description and gets on with his twists and turns in a blunt, business-like way. It is engrossing to the last page. Profundity flashes in Le Carre’s sparse prose.

Everywhere that air of conspiracy which generates among people who have been up since dawn – of superiority almost, derived from the common experience of having seen the night disappear and the morning come. The staff had that look which is informed by the mystery of dawn and animated by the cold, and they treated the passengers and their baggage with the remoteness of men returned from the front: ordinary mortals had nothing for them that morning.

No Bond

Le Carre’s Leamas is a million miles from Ian Fleming’s James Bond. He is low on charm, gadgets and high-octane action. His scruffy, debt-laden, plodding demeanour is the encapsulation of post-war Britain, concealing a sharply devious intellect.

Bleak, damp, bomb-scarred London is at once a refuge, prison and battleground for competing interests and ideologies. Leamas has a romance of sorts, but its understated un-sentimentality is brilliantly downbeat.

Cold War

The Spy takes a quick look at the Cold War contradictions in the conflict between the supposed ‘Christian’ West and the atheist Communist bloc. When Leamas encounters officers from the other side of the Iron Curtain, their assumptions about the West don’t match the reality.

‘What do you mean, a philosophy? he replied; ‘We’re not Marxists, we’re nothing. Just people.’

‘Are you Christians then?’

‘Not many, I shouldn’t think. I don’t know many.’

‘What makes them do it, then?’ Fiedler persisted; ‘They must have a philosophy.’

‘Why must they? Perhaps they don’t know; don’t even care. Not everyone has a philosophy,’ Leamas answered, a little helplessly.

The man who wrote the book

You get the sense of absolute unglamorous authenticity. The everyday procedures of spycraft ring true. Le Carre (real name David John Cornwell) studied in Bern and Oxford, taught at Eton and worked for the British Foreign Service, MI5 and MI6. He knew the world he was writing about. He wrote this follow-up to Call for the Dead in snatches over five weeks, publishing in 1963.

The Cold War had been going for 18 years and would continue for another 26, and Le Carre sketched its defining features. He began with his own terror and disgust at the Berlin Wall. “[T]he Wall was perfect theatre as well as a perfect symbol of the monstrosity of ideology gone mad.”

At the time of inspiration, Le Carre was deeply unhappy in his marriage and at work. He said he fed his loneliness and bitterness into Alec Leamas. The dismal real humanity of the novel is its strength. It superbly stages the depressing and mundane machinery that co-opts tired, plain people into the civilisational conflicts of radical political ideologies.

Not long after reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, I got a DVD of the film version free in a paper. It is a chilly and tense production, a reminder of the granite stoicism that Richard Burton could pull off so well. Oskar Werner, Peter van Eyck and Claire Bloom fit their roles to a tee, but the atmosphere and plot are handled better in the book.