Review 1323: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Cover for The Spy Who Came in from the ColdThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the novel that made John Le Carré’s name as a master of espionage fiction. His introduction to my edition tells just how much he resented the attention he got for it. Even though it is one of his earlier books, having been published in 1963, it is one I hadn’t read.

At the beginning of the novel, Leamas watches in anger from West Berlin as his last good agent, Karl Riemeck, is shot crossing the border from East Berlin. Leamas is fairly sure, on his return to England shortly thereafter, that his career as an operator is over. Instead, he is offered a dangerous last mission. He is to appear to have been retired to a desk job, to go to pieces and lose his position and continue to go downhill with the hopes that he will be approached from the other side. The objective? To take down Mundt, a ruthless official on the other side of the wall and the man responsible for Karl’s death.

All goes according to plan, and Leamas is approached shortly after he gets out of prison for assaulting a grocer. Only, if you are familiar with Le Carré, you know that things will be much more complicated than they seem to be. And Leamas has one weakness. During his descent, he got involved with a young, naïve girl, Liz, a member of the Communist Party.

Le Carré is a master of suspense and a plotter of labyrinthine plots. In addition, his novels always have more going on in them that just action, such as raising serious issues of morality. This novel is rightfully a famous member of its genre.

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The Honourable Schoolboy

Day 1203: The 1977 Club! The Honourable Schoolboy

Cover for The Honourable SchoolboyI actually read this novel before the 1977 Club was announced, but I was pleased to find that it was published in that year. I have a couple of other books I’m reviewing this week that I read especially for the club.

Here are my previous reviews of some other books published in 1977:

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I wasn’t aware that there was a sequel to John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy until I picked up The Honourable Schoolboy and started reading it. It is truly a worthy successor.

In summarizing the plot, I have to give away a key point of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but a point revealed toward the beginning of the novel. In that novel, of course, George Smiley uncovered a mole for the Russians high up in British intelligence. Because of the mole’s position, as The Honourable Schoolboy begins, all of the service’s spy networks are compromised and must be dismantled.

With a small staff of personnel who were dismissed during his predecessor’s reign, Smiley must figure out a way to make the service viable again. He has the idea that they can look for intelligence in the lacunae of his predecessor’s work, that is, look for promising leads that were suppressed.

1977 club logoThey find one, payments by the Russians to an account in Hong Kong, first small ones but later very large. Since the “spook house” in Hong Kong has been closed, Smiley recalls a journalist, an “occasional” agent, Jerry Westerby, from retirement in Tuscany to investigate this lead. A tangled path leads him from a Chinese businessman in Hong Kong to the man’s former prostitute English mistress, a Mexican drug courier in Vientiane, and some ugly dealings.

It is always amazing to me that Le Carré can evoke as much excitement from a paper chase as from an action sequence. Once again, he is in top form with a taut thriller. This novel is set against a backdrop of Southeast Asia exploding into chaos with the end of the Vietnam War. Westerby’s investigations take him to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and Saigon.

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A Delicate Truth

Day 379: A Delicate Truth

Cover for A Delicate TruthBest Book of the Week!

A mid-level diplomat called Paul is sent on a mission to Gibralter with an army detachment and some mercenaries to capture a terrorist about to do an arms deal. Paul’s role is to act as the “red telephone,” keeping the minister in charge, Quinn, appraised. The agreement is that no action will be taken on British soil without British approval.

A person is spotted in the houses that the teams are monitoring, and there is an argument about whether to go ahead. The British, lead by a Welshman named Jeb and backed by Paul, argue that there is not enough evidence to proceed, but the mercenaries start to move anyway, and Quinn then gives permission to go. During the actual mission, though, all the monitors in the command center where Paul is waiting go dead, and Paul has to take the word of Elliott, the head mercenary, that everything went as planned.

Returning to a few days before the mission, Tony Bell, Quinn’s private secretary, is looking for help. For months, Quinn has been going AWOL, leaving him out of meetings, and keeping documents from him.

Toby has unofficially been informed that Quinn was censured a few years ago for a mission that went wrong involving a mercenary company lead by Jay Crispin. Quinn was forgiven but told not to consort with Crispin. Now Toby finds that Quinn has been meeting with Crispin and even sneaking him into the Foreign Office on the weekend. However, Toby is not supposed to know about the prior incident, so he has nowhere to turn. Taking a drastic decision, he secretly tapes a meeting about the mission to Gibralter. But his mentor, who originally was the one to break confidentiality, fails him, and soon he is sent to another posting.

A few years later, Kit Probyn, lately known as Paul, has retired to his wife’s property in Cornwall when he runs into Jeb, no longer a soldier but a leather worker who makes the rounds of fairs. Jeb tells him that the Gibralter mission, which Kit thought was a success, actually went horribly wrong and that Jeb himself was used as the fall guy. When Kit decides to collect evidence and blow the whistle, he turns to Toby with what he has learned. Although Toby is more aware of the dangers of their task than Kit is, neither has any idea of what they are getting into.

This novel is another of Le Carré’s taut and cynical thrillers, now moving from espionage to the theme of mixing private enterprise with politics and the fight against terrorism. Although not quite up there with The Constant Gardener, which I think is one of the best and most touching of Le Carré’s post-Cold War thrillers, it is deeply involving and tense. With Le Carré, you are never sure of whether good or evil will win, which makes his novels that much more exciting. He is really the master of this genre.

Day 187: A Perfect Spy

Cover for A Perfect SpyWhen I was younger, I used to confuse John le Carré and Ken Follett, but last year I went to see the excellent movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. After that, I began reading le Carré again (my review of the novel is here) and have realized that he is the real spellbinder.

Although le Carré writes about espionage, these are not your typical James Bond novels. Le Carré is interested in the moral ambiguity of the work and in psychological drama rather than action. Nevertheless, his novels are extremely suspenseful.

At the beginning of A Perfect Spy, Magnus Pym has escaped his bosses in the British government and the Americans who are investigating him and has arrived at his secret rooms in a small British seaside town to write his novel, he says. As the British search for him feverishly and his boss Jack Brotherhood reluctantly begins to wonder if he is the traitor the Americans claim, Pym writes the sad story of his life.

Pym’s father has recently died, and Pym feels himself finally free to be himself, but perhaps even Pym doesn’t know who he is. His story begins with his charismatic father–a man who is beloved by many but who is also a liar, a cheat, a con man, and a thief. Pym learns to lie and pretend everything is fine from a master, and he goes on pretending for his entire life. But Pym’s motivating force, unlike his father’s, is never money. It is love. He will be anyone and do anything to make people love him.

Is Pym a traitor or isn’t he? As his boss and his wife frantically try to find him, Pym recalls the circumstances and tangled events that lead him to where he is in the present time, alone in his rooms contemplating the next step.

It is difficult to convey, without giving much away, just how compelling this novel is. Le Carré’s genius is that he can make you care for this deeply flawed character and keep you riveted by his story. A Perfect Spy is said to be the most autobiographical of le Carré’s books. It is certainly an involving novel.

Day 117: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

After seeing the exciting movie this winter, I decided to read the novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré. George Smiley has been drummed out of the service and the entire leadership of “The Circus” (slang for Britain’s intelligence organization) replaced after the death of Control, their former leader.

But the ministry calls him in to listen to the tale of Ricky Tarr, a low-level operative from Penang, who has been missing for months. Tarr’s story includes information from the wife of a Soviet operative and an allegation that The Circus has a mole at the highest level, moreover, that the mole has been sending the Russians information for some time. The ministry wants Smiley to investigate. It is soon clear that the mole is one of only a few of Smiley’s colleagues, whom he has known and worked with for years.

The novel is breathtakingly suspenseful even though, having seen the movie, I knew the ending. Smiley puts the pieces together by going over records of significant events and interviewing several agents who were replaced because of suspicions they raised or events they witnessed.

This may not sound exciting in this day of explosions and car chases, but le Carré is a master at building up the intrigue and suspense. You will not want to put this book down. I recommend the movie as well, featuring a host of excellent British actors.