Review: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré (1963)


My Rating: 5 stars


  • My Lifetime Challenge (1963)
  • 1001 Books to Read Before You Die Challenge
  • Cloak & Dagger Challenge


I read this book for a “Lifetime Challenge” wherein I’m to read a book for each year since my birth. I picked this one off the NY Times bestseller list from 1963. Although I’ve seen a fair number of spy movies, I’d never read one of the original novels.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Michael Jayston. The narrator was excellent with a mature, smoky, gravelly voice that fit the main character quite well. His acting was often cold and aloof, which fit the character too, but could be quite angry and passionate when the scene called for it. There were times when I got a bit lost because I usually listen to audiobooks whilst doing something else, such as cleaning or driving or working on a puzzle. This is a very “thinky” book where you really have to pay attention. But I never got too lost. This is the sort of plot, in any case, where you are supposed to be a bit confused at times because you’re not given all the facts until later.

For the most part, I found the story entertaining and it held my interest. It was a bit dry in the middle when Leamus is basically giving a lot of facts to an intelligence officer and they go over and over the same material, as one does in an interrogation. But the last quarter of the novel really had me glued. As I said, it’s a very thinky spy plot, more intellectual than action-oriented, though there is some of that too. There’s a lot of 60-ish diatribes about communism vs the West and the morals of intelligence operations on both sides. It was sort of interesting in a retro sense, though it didn’t feel relevant today–we have lots of political problems, but not so much those, or at least, we’ve got bigger issues. I also don’t think I’ve ever read a novel which featured East Berlin when the wall was there, and that historical setting was both interesting and frightening.

I don’t want to give away anything about the ending, but it wasn’t what I expected and it shocked and moved me. It’s the sort of book where he feel like you’re returning to a different reality when you’re done with it.

I’m giving this novel 5 stars for the frankly astonishing intelligence in the writing and cold beauty of the prose. I’m not sure I’d rush out to read more of Le Carre’s spy books, because the book was ultimately bleak and a wee bit challenging. But I’m damned glad I read this one.

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