Top 100 Novel Review: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, John Le Carré (1963)

Basic But Solid Spy Thriller.

The perfect rebound book after my last reading failure.

Click here for TIME Magazine’s list. 
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586

The last fiction novel I read? Infinite Jest, an opaque dithering post-modern nightmare. I needed something wholesome to regain my confidence. My mind wasn’t ready to take on a challenge or the avant-garde, so I flipped through TIME’s Top 100 novels trying to find the best book for my palate. The Spy Who Came in form the Cold is a meat and potatoes book — exactly what I needed.

Mind you, this book isn’t exceptionally stellar. I’m not sure why it’s a top 100 novel; there is nothing that separates it from any other entry in the spy thriller genre. Maybe it’s because it was one of the firsts. Either way, it does succeed in completing the checklist you expect from fiction. Sometimes it is nice to read something that just does the basics and does them well.

John Le Carré (1931 – Present)


Set in the beginning of the Cold War, Agent Alec Leamas (who works for the British government) is waiting for his double agent to cross the Berlin wall and successfully defect to the West. The agent never makes it — he gets shot to death at a check point. Leaving Leamas with no agents to oversee, British Intelligence (nicknamed “The Circus”) decides to use this opportunity to turn Leamas into a fake traitor for their next operation.

They make it seem that they have spurned Leamas for his failures: they put him in a dead-end job, fire him, and then take his pension. Leamas, playing the part of disgruntled employee who’s turned to the bottle, tries to attract the attention of the East as a possible defector. The East makes contact and Leamas gains entry into the country to carry out a tricky game of double and triple crossing.

You know the book was successful if it has a film adaptation.


There isn’t too much going on here that needs scholarly discussion.

The book does present both sides as moral ambiguous entities. The West isn’t treated as some pure entity while the characters of the East have good depth. Leamas discusses politics at length with his Eastern counter part Fielder. Fielder, very idealistic and thoughtful, posits that there isn’t too much difference between them:

“I would say that since the war, our methods-out and those of the opposition-have become much the same. I mean you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s ‘policy’ is benevolent, can you now?”

The book is never turns into propaganda which I appreciated.

Then, it accomplishes all the basics:

  • Setting: Cold War feel with expected tropes and sense of paranoia? Check.
  • Characters: The archetypal spy who doesn’t have a heart? Check.
  • Plot: A thrilling political game of lies, twists, and deception? Check.
  • Entertainment: A page-turner to see what happens next? Check.

There is not much more to discuss beyond that. Dependable, solid, and good.


It doesn’t do anything special, but it does them well.

Other People’s Takes: 

  • The Poisoned Martini: The backdrop of a divided Berlin—as the aftershocks of World War II gave way to the burgeoning Cold War era—very much grounds the story in a particular time and place. Yet it’s game of spies is universal. These machinations could as easily take place today with different players and diverse locations.”
  • The Reading Bug: It exposed the dark underside of the world of Cold War espionage, in which each side, East and West, were both morally equivalent and ambivalent, where murder was commonplace, and where the only justification for one’s actions was the final outcome.”
  • The Books On Our Shelf: “There are quite a few memorable aspects to this book. The first one is the complete absence of moralizing as far as espionage is concerned. The methods deployed by both sides are equally deplorable and at no point does Le Carre appear to take sides.”

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