Le Carré Rejects the Fantasy World of Secret Agents Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At a time when Ian Fleming’s James Bond was riding high, former spy John le Carré rejected the fantasy world of fictional super agents, offering instead a powerful, realist, and antiheroic character study of an agent embroiled in the machinations of Cold War espionage.

Summary of Event

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) is a novel of and about the Cold War. The main character, Alec Leamas, a British spy, is a Cold Warrior who has seen his spy network in East Berlin disintegrate under relentless pressure from the other side. His failures have made it certain that he will have to “come in from the cold,” that is, he will have to retire from the field to a desk job. Before he does, however, he would like to destroy Hans-Dieter Mundt, his cruel and dreaded counterpart in the Abteilung (the East German intelligence agency) and the man who has destroyed Leamas’s networks. Leamas accepts one last assignment in the belief that he can bring his opponent down. In the novel’s denouement, Leamas realizes that there is little difference between the two sides. Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The (le Carré) Cold War;popular representations Realism;literature [kw]Le Carré Rejects the Fantasy World of Secret Agents (1963)[Lecarré Rejects the Fantasy World of Secret Agents] [kw]Fantasy World of Secret Agents, Le Carré Rejects the (1963) [kw]Secret Agents, Le Carré Rejects the Fantasy World of (1963) Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The (le Carré) Cold War;popular representations Realism;literature [g]Europe;1963: Le Carré Rejects the Fantasy World of Secret Agents[07450] [g]United Kingdom;1963: Le Carré Rejects the Fantasy World of Secret Agents[07450] [c]Literature;1963: Le Carré Rejects the Fantasy World of Secret Agents[07450] [c]Cold War;1963: Le Carré Rejects the Fantasy World of Secret Agents[07450] Le Carré, John

The story opens with Leamas waiting at a checkpoint, an official gateway through the Berlin Wall. He is waiting for Karl Riemeck, his last significant agent in East Berlin, to escape the disaster that has befallen Leamas’s Berlin network. Riemeck is shot before he can escape, yet another victim of Mundt’s remorseless destruction of all for which Leamas has worked. Leamas returns home to London, sure that his failure means his own exit from active spying, for as he notes, “intelligence work has one moral law—it is justified by results.”

When he arrives in London, Leamas meets with Control, the head of “the Circus,” the nickname for the espionage branch of the British Intelligence Service, derived from its location in Piccadilly Circus. Control commiserates with Leamas over the tragedy, then offers Leamas a chance to destroy Mundt. Control’s plan is for Leamas to debase himself until he might be considered as a possible intelligence source for the Abteilung. If he is then contacted, by carefully mixing truth with fiction, Leamas might be able to convince the Abteilung that Mundt is actually a traitor working for the British. Leamas agrees to the plan.

To begin the process, Leamas is first degraded for his Berlin failures. He is posted to the banking section, where he performs poorly and drinks incessantly. He is finally dismissed from the Circus for financial impropriety. He takes on odd jobs, but his drinking and personal habits are so offensive that he cannot maintain one. At one of the jobs, however, he meets Liz Gold, who falls in love with him. Ever aware of his job, he leaves her, telling her to forget him. He then assaults a grocer and goes to jail. Leamas has hit bottom.

Upon his release from prison, Leamas is contacted by East German agents. Leamas is then taken to Holland, where he is further interrogated. To build his credibility, he willingly details his Berlin operations. He then offers the information regarding “Operation Rolling Stone,” which had involved the payment of money to a highly placed East German, the name of whom only Control had known. Leamas denies that he had ever known about the agent before being transferred to the Banking Section. Only there, and only because Leamas had been responsible for making certain payments, had he deduced that there had been a top-level agent in British pay in the Abteilung.

Leamas’s story is convincing enough for him to be taken to Berlin, where he is turned over to Jens Fiedler, chief of East German counterintelligence. Fiedler has long suspected Mundt of being a British agent, but he has not found any concrete evidence to support that belief. Leamas’s information regarding “Operation Rolling Stone” apparently offers the proof he needs. Fiedler and Leamas are able to verify that the payment monies that had been deposited in various banks had been withdrawn when Mundt was on a business trip for the Abteilung in the city where the banks were located. This and other evidence is enough to convince Fiedler that he can bring charges of treason against Mundt.

At the trial, Fiedler presents his case, with Leamas as his star witness. Mundt is accused of having been turned by British intelligence, of having accepted the payments for his services, and of having used Riemeck as his conduit for sending information to British intelligence via Leamas. Riemeck’s death is explained as a ploy to deflect Fiedler’s suspicions from Mundt. Mundt’s defense, however, is stunning. Fiedler is countercharged with treason; as proof, Liz Gold, who had been lured to East Germany, is produced as a witness. She simply tells the truth: She had loved Leamas, but he had told her he was leaving; when he was gone, British intelligence had taken care of her needs. Her testimony reveals Leamas’s role as a fabricator, and Fiedler is doomed.

After the trial, Mundt arranges for the escape of Leamas and Liz. What Leamas has come to suspect has finally become clear. Mundt was exactly what the fabricated “Operation Rolling Stone” had supposedly proved he was—a spy for British intelligence. All the information that Fiedler had collected had been absolutely correct. Fiedler, by all accounts decent, was to be executed, and Mundt, whom Leamas despises, has been saved. As he tells Liz, “Fiedler lost and Mundt won. London won—that’s the point. It was a foul, foul operation. But it’s paid off, and that’s the only rule.” At the Berlin Wall, when they are almost free, Liz is killed. Leamas, knowing that she was shot in order to ensure her silence, refuses to jump to safety. He chooses instead to remain by her body, opting to die rather than to come in from the cold and return to such a foul, foul business.


To understand the significance of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the novel must first be placed in perspective. World War II, a war against totalitarianism, had ended; but the Cold War, an ideological battle, had immediately followed. Two sides—the Soviet Union and its allies against the United States and its allies—confronted each other throughout the world. Crises occurred with alarming frequency. Each side resorted to elaborate propaganda campaigns, painting itself in the most favorable light and the other side in the worst possible light.

With the entire world a battleground, and with each side portraying itself as absolutely right, humanity was perpetually in fear of a nuclear Armageddon. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 appeared to be merely a portent of crises yet to come. Europe itself was especially plagued by crises, with Berlin, because of its location, being a frequent hot spot. It was along the Iron Curtain in Germany that the two sides were most visibly poised to fight, and it was there that the weapons buildup was greatest. Thus, the spy business was most essential in Germany; it was there that the most information was needed.

It was in this environment that David Cornwall came of age. Born in 1931 and educated at British public schools and on the Continent, Cornwall was an ideal candidate for the Foreign Service Foreign Service, British . Temperamentally, however, he was not an ideal candidate for the deviousness of such work. Cornwall’s moral values were revulsed by the espionage of the era and by the amorality exhibited by both sides. To Cornwall, it was not a world in which good was combating evil; from his viewpoint, he saw both sides using the same tactics and following the same rules. It was not a matter of black or white; all was gray.

When he became a writer, Cornwall took the nom de plume John le Carré; while The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was actually his third novel, it is the work that best exemplifies his interpretation of the Cold War. It was also the work that allowed him to retire from the Foreign Service to devote himself full-time to his writing. Le Carré dismissed as absurd Ian Fleming’s James Bond type of spy. For le Carré, the prototypical master spy was George Smiley, a shy, reserved, physically unattractive yet brilliant agent. Smiley, however, is an integral part in the deception that ultimately results in the death of Fiedler, of Liz, and of Leamas, his own agent.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is much more than a good spy story. It is also a good novel. Le Carré uses the spy-thriller genre to educate his audience and to elucidate the themes of the Cold War for his readers. He continually harps upon the themes of amorality, of the difficulty of telling good from bad or right from wrong, and of the nature of spying. In this regard, le Carré could be grouped with Joseph Conrad, Jaroslav Hašek, Erich Maria Remarque, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for all are interested not in the glorification of nationalistic conflict, but in the dehumanizing behaviors that result from such conflict. For a cruel and devious man such as Mundt to win is immoral; in the world of the Cold War, however, it is amorality that triumphs. There is room only for success, whatever the cost. There are no heroes, only victims and victors.

A film version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Ritt) Motion picture adaptions;The Spy Who Came in from the Cold[Spy Who Came in from the Cold] was released in 1965. Filmed in austere black and white and starring Richard Burton, the motion picture was true to the novel. In the tradition of Jean Renoir and of Stanley Kubrick (whose black comedy Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was released in 1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold pulled no punches in its portrayal of the inhumanity of humans.

Each antihero, despite individual flaws, manifested a basic goodness at some point in the story. Leamas, the penultimate frontline Cold Warrior, was a flawed but good person. As the film unfolds, Leamas discovers the part of his psyche that he had deliberately submerged while he worked as a spy. At the end of the story, knowing better who he truly is, he refuses to leave the one good person in his life. He chooses to die with her rather than to return to the world he knew. It is an end little different from that met by Paul Bäumer, the hero of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, who dies before he can return to a world from which he is permanently alienated. Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The (le Carré) Cold War;popular representations Realism;literature

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aronoff, Myron J. The Spy Novels of John le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Study of the realist psychology and ethical and political concerns depicted in le Carré’s work. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Clive, ed. Spy Thrillers: From Buchan to le Carré. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. A collection of thirteen essays that survey the development of the spy novel genre from the late nineteenth century to the present. Useful for understanding the range of styles within the genre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. John le Carré: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Eleven essays on the craft of le Carré. Articles range from analyses of le Carré’s fiction to studies of le Carré’s role in the Cold War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Homberger, Eric. John le Carré. New York: Methuen, 1986. A biography of le Carré that analyzes not only the fiction of le Carré but also the person who is the author. Particularly useful for understanding the interrelationship between the author and his writing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Peter. John le Carré. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. A biography of John le Carré that focuses primarily on his writing. Lewis sketches the life history of the author, then devotes succeeding chapters to each novel in succession. Excellent analysis of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Monaghan, David. The Novels of John le Carré: The Art of Survival. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985. A collection of five essays that seek to explain the craft of le Carré within the context of the author’s worldview. Monaghan is particularly interested in le Carré’s use of spying as a metaphor for modern society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Smiley’s Circus. London: Orbis, 1986. A collection of biographies, chronologies, glossaries, and explanations that detail and elucidate le Carré’s spy world. Particularly useful for understanding the myriad deceptions that frequent le Carré’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sauerberg, Lars Ole. Secret Agents in Fiction: Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Len Deighton. London: Macmillan, 1984. Important study of the spy-thriller genre. Of significance is the comparison of the work of the three best British spy novelists of the Cold War era, each of whom interpreted his spies differently.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfe, Peter. Corridors of Deceit: The World of John le Carré. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987. An analysis of le Carré’s work as well as a study of the psychological processes and moral values it expresses.

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