Monday, January 3, 2011

Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré

I’m still a little behind on my reviewing, mainly as a result of the two and a half weeks of utter laziness I just finished enjoying on PEI with my family. But I did manage to get through a few books over the holiday season, including John Le Carré’s seminal 1963 spy novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Le Carré seems to be enjoying a bit of a late-day renaissance, what with the publication(and rave reviews)of his new novel Our Kind of Traitor. I hadn’t read any of his work before, turned off by what I assumed to be his slant toward genre writing, but with all of the attention his new book has been getting, I thought I’d start from the very beginning of his success.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold stands a relic to a bygone age – when the tensions of the Cold War were still very new and very dangerous. The protagonist is failed spy Alec Leamas who is recalled to England from his post on the East-West German frontier after a fellow spy is shot while trying to defect. Leamas is some ways the embodiment of a genre spy – dark, moody, unpredictable, a heavy drinker, and languishing in a kind of gloomy self exile. And yet Le Carré is able to lend his fictional creation a fuller dimension by thrusting him into the very real history of his time and place. While the twists and turns of the plot – rife with double crosses and triple crosses, scapegoats and patsies – keep us turning the pages, we’re never allowed to forget the impact (or at least the fear) that global Communism was having on the world at the time.

From what I’ve heard of Le Carré’s other work, what sets him apart from other spy writers is his ability to eschew the need to play things for camp. He instead favours taking a very serious and detailed look at the world that his characters inhabit. This is certainly true of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. There were plenty of scenes that would have come off chintzy in the hands of a lesser talent.

Not sure I’ll be reading another Le Carré novel anytime soon, but this was a great introduction to his wider oeuvre. Always refreshing to see somebody take genre writing and spin it on its ear.

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