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

the_spy_who_came_in_from_the_cold_coverThe Spy who came in from the Cold. John Le Carré. Copyright 1963. Penguin 2010.

I am a huge fan of the George Smiley radio plays on the BBC but haven’t often sat down to read one of the original books. This classic was a good choice to start with and made me appreciate Le Carré is not only a brilliant storyteller but also an excellent writer.

The Spy Who came in from the Cold is a classic spy novel from 1963 set in the midst of the Cold War. Alec Leamas has just lost his entire network in Berlin due to his opposite in East Germany, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Back in disgrace at “the Circus” (the British intelligence service) the chief “Control” asks him to do one last mission; to take Mundt down for good.

I appreciated Alec Leamas as a character much more than in the radio plays now that I can read his voice unfiltered. His ability to antagonise every smooth operator he comes across was hilarious but I also liked the streak of empathy that he hadn’t managed to lose. The other characters also remained with me well after I had finished the book- Mundt, who sent chills down my spine, the characters in the library, and my favourite character Fiedler, a soft spoken and vastly intelligent communist under Mundt.

This is an exceptional book. It is written so cold and sparse and yet it is incredibly emotive. It has the kind of dialogue that I want to go back and read over and over, to hunt for hidden motivations and see what I missed. Part of the magic of this book is many hints throughout that something is not quite right and Leamas is right there with us, unable to see the whole picture.

“Do you really feel that?” Control enquired politely. And then, having looked at Leamas thoughtfully for a moment, he observed: “Yes, I really think you do. But you musn’t feel you have to say it. I mean, in our world we pass so quickly out of the register of hate or love – like certain sounds a dog can’t hear. All that’t left in the end is a kind of nausea; you never want to cause suffering again.”

I recommend this book both for being a thrilling story and for the message it conveys that at the time caused waves. John Le Carré was the pen-name of a man who actually worked as a British Intelligence Officer and his George Smiley series challenged the notion that British espionage was morally superior to any other country. Many writers have commented on how atmospheric this book is but my favourite quote is one by J.B. Priestley: “Superbly constructed, with an atmosphere of chilly hell.” 

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Review: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Nine travellers try to outrun the plague that is sweeping England but as they find themselves thrown together it is uncertain whether it is the plague that is the most dangerous or the secret that each of them is hiding.

This only took a short time to read since the style was captivating and the secret that each character carries kept my attention as I tried to work each one out. I liked the way the author purposely gave enough clues so that the reader works the answer out just before the narrator does. The story is told in first person from the view of an old Camelot, a medieval peddler, who’s voice is brusque and hard but his actions are more tender-hearted as seen throughout the book. First person can very easily annoy me but after the first few pages I grew used to the style and found it easy to see the story through.

Folktales are interwoven into the story as each traveller tells their own embroidered history and the narrator makes up about five different histories for himself throughout the book. My favourite was the swan boy whose history was a haunting gory fairytale.

“At that the storyteller threw back his purple cloak and there was a gasp from the crowd so deep that for an instant everyone seemed in two minds whether to turn and run or push towards him. From under the cloak the storyteller withdrew his left arm, except that it wasn’t an arm, it was the pure white wing of a swan.”

I only had a vague  knowledge of the plague from what I learnt at school and you do not need to know more than this to read the book. Maitland intertwines many gruesome customs and histories into the novel alongside the characters. She seamlessly incorporates the custom of the cripple’s wedding or the corpse road in with the plot.

I grew to like some of the characters but due to the tense and growing oppressiveness of the story I was constantly on edge and certain terrible things would happen to them. Only one character was very two-dimensional for me and since it was a pivotal character in the plot I felt the book suffered, especially the ending which reminded me of Goosebumps.

This book is a fast paced, creepy historical read and a twisting dark thriller of a book. Maitland tells a well plotted and enjoyable story. I now want to read other books by this author as she has written two more set around the same period.