⭑⭑⭑⭑ (4/5 see book reviews)

Intelligence work has one moral law—it is justified by results.

– John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

I’ve always wondered if James Bond is supposed to be an idiot or if that’s his cover. I think “shaken, not stirred” is a the give-away: who would ever shake a martini?

There is a kind of stupidity among drunks, particularly when they are sober, a kind of disconnection which the unobservant interpret as vagueness and which Leamas seemed to acquire with unnatural speed.

– John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

John le Carré’s Alec Leamas in contrast is a drunk, but I’m still not sure if that’s only his cover. Leamas is a journeyman’s James Bond—smaller, realer—an everyday sort of vicious.

What do you think spies are: priests, saints, and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists, and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs?

– John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Leamas has one far-fetched chance at destroying Hans-Dieter Mundt the ex-Nazi member of the Abteilung who ordered East German border guards to gun-down Karl Riemeck, Leamas’s spy. And this single chance involves going deep undercover.

The reader is left in the dark about the plan initially—we’re left to believe Leamas has become a bitter drunk as office rumors swirl about his pension eligibility.

But later we realize his contact—Control—means to use him for counter intelligence. Feeding the enemy select disinformation under the guise of Leamas acting as a turn-coat.

The layers of double-crossing only get better from there. It reminded me a lot of Martin Scorsese’s movie The Departed—a contact deep under cover, except replace Mark Wahlberg with George Smiley.

When le Carré died a few years back, I’d vowed to become familiar with his work. This book was a good entrypoint.

Good quotes

I mean you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent,

– John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

It is said that men condemned to death are subject to sudden moments of elation; as if, like moths in the fire, their destruction were coincidental with attainment.

– John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

A man who lives apart, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor, or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief.

– John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

  • Title: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
  • Author: John le Carré
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