The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

By John Le Carré,

Book cover of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Book description

From the New York Times bestselling author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Our Kind of Traitor; and The Night Manager, now a television series starring Tom Hiddleston.

The 50th-anniversary edition of the bestselling novel that launched John le Carre's career worldwide

In the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall,…

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Why read it?

8 authors picked The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

John Le Carré is one of the reasons I became a spy thriller writer. Like Joseph Conrad who wrote great novels that happened to be set at sea, Le Carré writes literary novels set in the world of spies. Spare, authentic, intensely realistic, this book plunges you deep into the duplicitous world of spy tradecraft, reeling you in with a brilliant plot, spot-on characterizations and line after line of dialogue you’ll want to quote. The story depicts Alex Leamas, a burnt-out British agent who defects in a scheme to eliminate a powerful East German spymaster, but what it's really about…

Espionage at the beginning of the cold war was relationship- and intellect-driven. John le Carré (a.k.a. David Cornwell), who worked for both MI5 and MI6, accurately portrayed the environment in which operatives put their lives and sources at risk in service of their country. I find this novel interesting because it is in stark contrast to contemporary spy thrillers that typically include advanced technology and sometimes far-fetched plot twists. 

From F.F.'s list on defining the thriller genre.

I always want the characters to grab my attention in a book, as much, if not more, than the story itself. Of course the story must be good, but it’s inside the minds, bodies and actions of the protagonists where I live every day until I reach the end. Then, if they were good I’ll look out for them again. 

In this one it was Alec Leamas and George Smiley. I love whisky, so I associated with Leamas in lots of ways and George Smiley was a person whose morality was something I wanted to portray in my fictional characters.

From Daniel's list on the best character driven stories.

It’s simply a great and well-crafted story and one that grabbed me well before I knew I wanted to write. British agent Alec Leamas is burned out and believes the Cold War is over for him, but then he’s given a chance at revenge by posing as an East German defector. All the while, Western espionage methods aren’t looking any morally better than the enemy’s, and Leamas feels it. No heroes here, just underdogs and survivors—a revelation at the time. A classic for so many reasons. 

From Steve's list on underdogs on a doomed mission.

Le Carré’s name has become synonymous with the spy genre, and it was this book that propelled him to international stardom. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the third of Le Carré’s spy novels and takes place against the backdrop of the Cold War, not long after the raising of the Berlin Wall.

Alec Leamas, an MI6 field operative in Berlin, is called back to London, apparently in disgrace, but actually to complete one final mission. Control (Head of MI6) asks him to go undercover one last time to convince the East Germans that he is…

From Tom's list on British spies.

Some of the best books on counterintelligence are fiction, and in my opinion, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the best of the lot. Le Carre gets it right when he describes this fiendishly clever CI operation by MI6 to bring down its nemesis, Hans Dieter Mundt, the Chief of East German counterintelligence. But be forewarned. In the murky world of counterintelligence, all is not what it seems to be. I personally identify with the main MI6 officer involved, Alec Leamas. He’s one of us.    

From James' list on counterintelligence.

This book hardly needs introduction. When it first came out in 1963 it simply blew the absurdities of James Bond style espionage thrillers aside. Here was a novel, a real novel with all the attributes of character development, moral jeopardy and evocation of place, coupled with a brilliant and disconcerting plot. Live again the grim world of the Cold War, of divided Berlin and split loyalties. This is what spying must really be like. We’ve never really recovered from it!  

John le Carré's first sight of the Berlin Wall filled him with disgust and outrage, inspiring him to write his seminal book in five weeks, freezing in time a place both perilous and clandestine. The Wall changed his life, among millions of others…and led to me becoming a writer.

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