Ichabod is itchy

October 11, 2006

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Filed under: literature — by ichabodisitchy @ 7:44 pm

Have just finished this classic John le Carre spy story and must confess that my preconceptions of it being an ‘airport action book’ (you know what I mean) were wrong and, to my surprise, I really rather enjoyed it.

Set in the Cold War, this is the story of British agent Alec Leamas, and his struggle against the head of the German Abteilung, ‘Mundt’. The book opens with Mundt’s heartless murder of one of Leamas’ spies as he’s crossing the border from East to West Berlin. This death, we are told, is the last in a series of killings by Mundt and now all of Leamas’ men are dead. With no-one left to run information for him across the border, Leamas’ packs up the Berlin operation and returns to London a wash out.

But ‘Control’ offer him a job. One he can’t refuse– one that will take out Mundt. He is promised a comfortable retirement when the job is done (coming in from the cold so to speak). The ‘operation’ is to feign going to pieces–drink, money troubles, rumours of embezzlement, assault of a greengrocer, a spell in prison–and bait the Germans into picking Leamas’ up as an informant. The information fed them will suggest a mole highly placed in the Abteilung and point the finger (oh so subtly) at Mundt. It is aimed at Mundt’s second in command– Fiedler–who is hungry for power and despises Mundt.

But something goes wrong. Somewhere along the way, Leamas meets a girl, Liz and falls in love. She’s in the English faction of the Communist Party– attracted, like so many in those days, by the ideals of communism without knowing how it was being put in practice. Leamas slips up and lets her know that his fall from grace is intentional. Mundt gets hold of the information and uses it against Leamas, incriminating Fiedler of treason in the process.

It’s a brutal story, and it’s brutally told. Terse language and harsh words add to the atmosphere. Leamas’ is horrific, yet likeable. His girlfriend insipid, but believable. And Mundt is pure evil genius.

There is a good twist, and it ends with a bang.



  1. I saw the film of that one, Sian, starring Richard Burton. It worked very effectively because we didn’t know (unless I missed five minutes at the beginning) that Burton’s character was faking the descent into depravity. A brilliant film.

    Comment by Ian — October 12, 2006 @ 10:22 am |Reply

  2. I read this, years ago, and enjoyed it without understanding it. I read a lot of this kind of book when I was about 12 or 13, in a vain attempt to understand those apparently sophisticated adults all around me yet unknown to me.
    I read every one of le Carre’s books as they came out for some years, but gave up with the last few.
    I would highly recommend “the honourable schoolboy” and “the little drummer girl”, my two personal favourites, as a very insightful analysis of confused modern politics (far east and middle east, respectively), together with being cracking plot-based reads. In particular, the litte drummer girl was rather prescient about middle east terrorism, as it was unknown in the west at time of writing and for some years after, but certainly came true, and more.

    Comment by Web editor — October 12, 2006 @ 9:38 pm |Reply

  3. This is such a great post, thanks for the great info. and I am so excited to read more

    Comment by Max — February 6, 2010 @ 8:14 pm |Reply

  4. Keep the posts coming. I like reading your stuff. thanks.

    Comment by Juliette — February 9, 2010 @ 9:45 pm |Reply

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