The Pequod Review:
John le Carre comprehensively reinvented the spy novel, turning away from the romantic individual heroism of Ian Fleming and others, and instead presenting the job of a spy as a sad, amoral, and degrading exercise.
Le Carre (born David Cromwell) was a veteran of the British foreign service, and his stories are told with the precision and detail of someone who has seen first-hand what espionage is really like. The spies in le Carre’s books are disposable pawns under the control of powerful bureaucratic institutions. They lead quietly desperate lives that are spiritually empty and indifferent to death, and his books rarely end with any kind of redemption or optimism. Le Carre’s broader implications, while understated, are clear: the entire spy operation chews up and destroys innocent people, “our side” and “their side” are equally corrupted, and whatever honor the Western cause against Communism may have originally had is now so distant and debased as to be meaningless. And his views of culpability sometimes extend to more radical directions; in one of his books, a couple watching TV in their living room are portrayed as complacent and pathetic for “the crabbed delusion of their dreams.”
This is all an effective set-up, but what really stands out in le Carre’s novels is the way he gets inside the minds of his central characters to reveal the depths of their desperation and hopelessness. In The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, le Carre’s third novel and his breakthrough success, the central figure Alex Leamas is about to be discarded after a disastrous mission when British Intelligence brings him back for one last assignment. It is apparent from the beginning that it will not be an unambiguous success.