Likely Stories: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

Apr 11, 2019


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Way back in my high school days, I had an English teacher who had us reading some of the important works of fiction.  One I remembered was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré.  I hated it.  While it was before the days of my “Rule of 50,” I did not like the first 50 pages—if I actually read that far.  Recently, I decided to give it another read, and I am glad I did.  Spy turned out to be a first-rate thriller.  Missing out on the last 200 pages proved to be a mistake.  The novel ends with a spectacular finish.

John Le Carré is the pseudonym for a British civil servant in one of the Whitehall ministries.  He was born David John Moore Cornwell on October 19, 1931, in Poole, Dorset, England.  At 16, he left England to attend the University of Bern in Switzerland.  He has written 24 novels so far.

The main character is Leamas, a spy in the last days of his career.  Chapter three begins, “It surprised no one very much when they put Leamas on the shelf.  In the main, they said, Berlin had been a failure for years, and someone had to take the rap.  Besides, he was old for operational work, where your reflexes often had to be as quick as those of a professional tennis player.  Leanus had done good work in the war, everyone knew that.  In Norway and Holland, he had somehow remained demonstrably alive, and at the end of it they gave him a medal and let him go.  Later, of course, they got him to come back.  It was bad luck about his pension, decidedly bad luck.  Accounts Section had let it out, in the person of Elsie.  Elsie said in the canteen that poor Alex Leamas would only have £400 a year to live on because of his interrupted service” (28). 

Le Carré writes, “Leamas took as much exercise as he could during the day in the hope that he would sleep at night; but it was no good.  At night you knew you were in prison: at night there was nothing, no trick of vision or self-delusion which saved you from the nauseating enclosure of the cell.  You could not keep out the taste of prison, the smell of prison uniforms, the stench of prison sanitation heavily disinfected, the noises of captive men.  It was then, at night, that the indignity of captivity became urgently insufferable, it was then that Leamas longed to walk in the friendly sunshine of a London park.  It was then that he hated the grotesque steel cage that held him, had to force back the urge to fall upon the bars with his bare fists, to split the skulls of his guards and burst into the free, free space of London.  Sometimes he thought of Liz.  He would direct his mind toward her briefly like the shutter of a camera, recalled for a moment the soft-hard touch of her long body, then put her from his memory.  Leamas was not a man accustomed to living on dreams” (52).  John’s vivid descriptions follow him all the way to the end.

I have never cared much for detective or spy novels—until now.  John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, tells an exciting and thrilling tale with an ending I will never forget.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!