The Book that Changed a Genre: John le Carré’s THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

“Before, he was evil and my enemy; now, he is evil and my friend.”

It’s not his best book. Not by a long shot. That would be Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the most beautifully written thriller of our age. But like the pain in my shoulder that inexorably follows the advent of the frigid winter rains, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is and always will be with me. In the same way that the old, persistent pain has come to define, at least in some small way, the man that I am, so his story and the way he told it have, in very real and tangible ways, made me the writer that I am today.

Before him, I was an exile, wandering half-heartedly through the disjointed craft of literary fiction. It was my only choice really. I’d tried thrillers in all their various shapes, sizes, forms, and sub-genres. Then just for good measure, I’d tried them again. But they were vaporous and unsatisfying—all action, bravado and punch, no intellect or heart. Where was the curiosity over the vastness of the universe? Where was the confusion over the complexities and mysteries of the human condition? No, I couldn’t take that path. I needed characters cut from a finer a cloth, men and women who thought and suffered and struggled to make sense of it all. I needed complex, contemporary backstories drawn from a real world filled with peril and injustice, moral compromises and betrayal. I needed depth and dimension that wasn’t to be found in a thriller. Not until 1963 anyway. Not until the publication by an obscure English press (even then the indie publishers were the incubators of our trade) of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Not until John le Carré, a writer “too fine for his chosen genre” (as one reviewer was later to phrase it), came like a savior to rescue us all and show the world the real potential of the thriller.

The book won the Gold Dagger award from the British Crime Writers Association for “Best Crime Novel.” It also won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for “Best Mystery Novel.” It was the first time a single book had won them both. Time magazine named it one of the world’s one hundred best novels, and Publisher’s Weekly called it “the best spy novel of all time.” But the world struggled to define a book that was in so many ways genre-busting. Some said it was a thriller, others a mystery, still others a work of literary fiction. In truth, it was, and is, all of those. But truer still, it is the story of a complex, vulnerable, world-weary man named Alec Lemas. Above all, it is the tale of his lot and his destiny.

Alec Lemas is a brooding, confused man caught up in a world like nothing the post-Eisenhower era reader had ever encountered. He’s a station chief assigned to the West Berlin office of the British Secret Intelligence Service, the espionage body Le Carré readers will know as “the Circus.” The story takes place in the early sixties, but its somber tones and grim, hard-faced scenery filled with duplicity and a pervasive uncertainty about the boundary between goodness and evil bespeak the dawn of a new and troubling age, an age of nihilism and self-doubt. In a word, the world in which we find ourselves today.

As the novel opens, Leamas has been recalled to London where he expects to be sacked. He’s just lost his last and most treasured double agent behind the Iron Curtain. And in the world of the Circus, failure always has consequences.

But even in these early pages, the plot takes unexpected and alluring turns. Instead of being fired, Leamas is told by his “control,” the eponymous George Smiley, that his penance isn’t termination, but rather a new and dangerous assignment “in the cold.” In a byzantine ruse that only George Smiley could have conceived, Leamas will be fired and fall into violence and drink. He’ll struggle to get by on an inadequate pension and appear to grow ever more disaffected and isolated. And then the East Germans, always hungry to recruit agents of their own, will come for him. And come they do. But not before a complication arises (is it anticipated, staged or unexpected by the Circus? We are left to wonder and can never quite be sure). Alec Leamas meets a girl. A librarian, a Jew and a communist. And he falls in love.

But even love can’t keep Alec Leamas from his duty. He kisses her goodbye and leaves with his new keepers from the Abteilung, the East German Intelligence Service. Just as he’d been instructed by the Circus, Leamas adapts himself, first awkwardly then increasingly skillfully, to the role of traitor. In a stair-step process, the East Germans test his bona fides, first taking him to Holland where he is interrogated, and then after passing that test, to a safe house in the heart of East Germany where the process continues at increasingly higher levels of command.

Accustomed to the predictable thriller recipe, the reader expects to find German agents that are cruel, evil men dedicated only to their own dark ends and interests. But instead, le Carré gives us Fielder, an ideologue and philosopher, an altogether likeable man…and, just like Leamas’ lover Liz Gold, a Jew. Complexity ascends to new heights, and the reader’s intellect as well as his emotions are called into service. If we didn’t realize it before, we realize it now. We’ve stepped into a thriller like none other before it.

I won’t go on with the plot synopsis for fear of ruining it for you (in case you’ve lived in a cave for the last few decades and have never read the greatest thriller of our age). Suffice it to say that for the balance of the book, intrigue runs rampant, and the reader increasingly finds himself deeply baffled regarding just who represents the forces of good and, correspondingly, of evil. Double crosses become triple crosses, and triple crosses lead to “victory” for the West, “defeat” for the East, and an unexpected end for Alec Leamas and Liz Gold.

I first read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold when I was in high school, in the late sixties. Since then, I imagine I’ve read it another half dozen times, and flipped its pages and dwelt over particular passages a dozen times more. Whenever I touch the fraying red book and open its cover, I marvel at the story, the character and the author who transformed a genre, who opened up possibilities for the thinking man in search of a thriller. The plot is exciting and suspenseful, everything one could ask for in a thriller. But at the same time, it is deeply complex, troubled at every turn by moral ambiguity and profound questions regarding the nature, the tools and the limits of what it means to be good (or to be evil). I’m drawn back again and again to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold not because it is beautifully, lyrically written. Le Carré executed that craft so much more skillfully in his later works when he reached the zenith of his Shakespearian turn of phrase. Instead, I’m drawn to it because it was something brave and new, something that didn’t just break through a barrier, but shattered it completely. I return to it because it is fundamentally the story of a man whose complexities and shortcomings I find so very similar to my own.

Without giving it all away, I have to offer you at least a glimpse of the story’s end, for it is only in that way you can appreciate the full, operatic allure of Alec Leamas. Like my own protagonist in Q: Awakening, Declan Stewart, he defines the book and all it stands for. And so you need to see the image of the ending in your mind’s eye, even if I am duty bound to leave the denouement to your imagination or your future reading.

Alec and Liz Gold approach the Berlin Wall from the East. Only a few meters of scarred earth, barbed wire and concrete stand between them and freedom. Alec goes first. When he reaches the top of the wall, he finds George Smiley waiting for him on the western side. “Jump, Alec. Jump man,” Smiley shouts. But Alec turns back to the east and reaches down for Liz’s hand. To know what happens then, you’ll have to venture into the realm of the most courageous thriller of all time. To know the end of Alec Leamas, you’ll have to read it for yourself.
But don’t embark on that journey lightly. Anyone who tells you that stories can’t change us, can’t script new and divergent destinies for us all, tells you lies. Stories make us who we are and shape who we might become. If you do not wish to risk becoming something other than what you are, then you should toss this article aside and never chart a course toward The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. To read a book, especially one such as this, is to elect a course along a forking path, to make a choice to shape your destiny. For a moment, no longer, you have the power to change or to remain as you are. Only you can choose.

By GM Lawrence, author of the new philo-thriller Q: Awakening to be published by Variance on April 17 (