The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Cover for the Victor Gollancz first edition
Cover for the Victor Gollancz first edition
Author John le Carré
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series George Smiley
Genre Spy novel
Publisher Victor Gollancz & Pan
Publication date
September 1963
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 256 pages (Hardback edition) &
240 pages (Paperback edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-575-00149-6 (Hardback edition) &
ISBN 0-330-20107-7 (Paperback edition)
Preceded by A Murder of Quality
Followed by The Looking-Glass War

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a 1963 Cold War spy novel by British author John le Carré. It has become famous for its portrayal of Western espionage methods as morally inconsistent with Western democracy and values. The novel received critical acclaim at the time of its publication and became an international best-seller; it was selected as one of the All-Time 100 Novels by Time magazine.[1] In 2006, Publishers Weekly named it the "best spy novel of all-time”.[2][3]

In 1965, Martin Ritt directed the cinematic adaptation The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with Richard Burton as Alec Leamas.


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold occurs during the heightened-alert politico-military tensions that characterised the late 1950s and early 1960s of the Cold War, when a Warsaw PactNATO war in Europe (Germany) seemed likely. The story begins and concludes in East Germany, about a year after the completion of the Berlin Wall and around the time when double-agent Heinz Felfe was exposed and tried.[4]

In Call for the Dead, le Carré's debut novel, a key character is Hans-Dieter Mundt , an assassin of the Abteilung, the East German Secret Service, who is working under diplomatic cover in London. When uncovered by agents George Smiley and Peter Guillam of MI6, referred to as the Circus and led by "Control", he escapes from England to East Germany before Smiley and Guillam can catch him. Two years later, at the time of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Mundt has risen from the field to the upper-echelon of the Abteilung, because of his successful counter-intelligence operations against the spy networks of the British Secret Service.


The West Berlin office of the British Secret Intelligence Service, under the command of Station Head Alec Leamas, has been performing poorly. At the commencement of the novel, Karl Riemeck – Leamas's last and best double agent, a high-ranking East German political officer – is shot dead whilst defecting to West Berlin.

With no agents left, the disgraced Leamas is recalled to London by Control, chief of the Circus. There, Control asks Leamas to stay "in the cold" for one last mission: to "turn" (defect) and provide false information to the East German Communists that would implicate Mundt as a British double agent — what his second-in-command, Fiedler, already suspects – to result in Mundt being executed by his own people. Control tells Leamas that Fiedler, due to his paranoia about Mundt, would be the best man to depose him. George Smiley and his former assistant, Peter Guillam, brief Leamas for his crucial mission. Control tells Leamas that Smiley had not returned to the Circus after the events of Call for the Dead because of moral qualms about unethical Circus operations.

To make the East Germans believe him ripe for defection, the Circus sacks Leamas, with a pittance of a pension; he gets and loses a miserable job in a run-down library. There, he meets co-worker Liz Gold, a young Jewish woman, who is the secretary of her local cell of the Communist Party of Great Britain. They become lovers. Before taking the "final plunge" into Control's scheme, Leamas makes Liz promise not to look for him, no matter what she hears, and says good-bye to her. Leamas also tells Control to leave Liz alone and Control agrees. Then, as planned, Leamas lands in jail after he assaults a local grocer.

After jail, an East German recruiter in England approaches Leamas. He is taken abroad, first to the Netherlands, then to East Germany, en route meeting higher echelons of the Abteilung, the East German intelligence service. During his debriefing, he drops casual hints that point to British payments to a double agent in the Abteilung, whilst pretending not to see the implications. Meanwhile, in England, Smiley and Guillam appear at Liz's apartment claiming to be friends of Alec, question her about him, and offer her financial help.

In East Germany, Leamas meets Fiedler. They have many conversations whilst walking in the forest, where Fiedler seeks conclusive proof against Mundt and engages in ideological and philosophic discussions with the pragmatic Leamas. As observed by Leamas, Fiedler seems content to live in Mundt's shadow, but is relatively young and brilliant. To Leamas, Fiedler is sympathetic: a Jew who spent the Second World War in Canada, and a Communist idealist who considers the morality of his actions. In contrast, Leamas sees Mundt as a brutal, opportunist mercenary, who was a Nazi before 1945 and then joined the Communists simply because they were the new bosses, and remained an anti-Semite. Leamas believes helping Fiedler destroy Mundt is a worthy act. Meanwhile, Liz is invited to East Germany for a Communist Party information exchange.

The power struggle in the Abteilung comes into the open when Mundt orders Fiedler and Leamas arrested and tortured. However, the leaders of the East German régime intervene because Fiedler had earlier applied for an arrest warrant for Mundt on the same day that Mundt arrested Fiedler and Leamas. They are released, and Fiedler and Mundt are summoned to present their cases to a tribunal convened in camera, in the town of Görlitz.

At the trial, Leamas documents a series of secret bank account payments that Fiedler matches to the movements of Mundt. Fiedler also shows that Riemeck passed to Leamas information to which he had no formal access, but to which Mundt did. Fiedler also presents to the Tribunal other proofs implicating Mundt as a British double agent and explains that Mundt was captured in England and allowed to escape only after agreeing to work as a double agent for the British.

Mundt’s attorney calls the unsuspecting Liz as a surprise witness for the defence. Although not wanting to testify against Leamas, she admits that Smiley paid for her apartment lease after visiting her and that she had promised Leamas to not look for him when he disappeared. She also admits that he had said good-bye to her the night before he assaulted the grocer. Realising that the operation is now blown, Leamas offers to tell all in return for Liz's freedom. He admits that Control gave him the mission to frame Mundt as a double agent, but adds that Fiedler was not a participant. In cross-examination, Fiedler asks Mundt how he knew that someone had paid off Liz's lease, because, Fiedler insists, Liz never would have spoken about it. Mundt hesitates before answering ("a second too long, Leamas thought"), then the Tribunal halts the trial and arrests Fiedler. Then, and only then, does Leamas understand the true nature of Control and Smiley's operation.

Liz is sent to a cell, but Mundt places her in a car with Leamas at the wheel. During their drive to Berlin, where an exit route from East Berlin awaits, he explains the operation to her, including the parts of which he was unaware until the end of the trial. The fake bank account payments were real, and Mundt is a double agent reporting to Smiley and Guillam. The operation was against Fiedler, not Mundt, as Leamas was deceived to believe, because Fiedler was close to exposing Mundt as a double agent. Fiedler was too powerful for Mundt to eliminate alone; therefore, Control and Smiley did it for him. They placed him and her as co-workers to provide Mundt with the means of discrediting Leamas and consequently discrediting Fiedler. By falling in love, Leamas and Liz made it easy for them. Liz is horrified that the Circus planned the death of Fiedler, an intelligent, considerate and thoughtful man, to protect the despicable Mundt. Fiedler's fate is unrevealed, but Leamas, in answer to Liz's question, says that he will most likely be shot.

Despite her moral disgust, Liz accompanies Leamas to the break in the wire fronting the Berlin Wall, where they are to climb the wall and escape to West Berlin. In the concluding chapter, after Leamas climbs to the top of the Wall and reaches down to pull Liz up, East German spotlights suddenly turn on them, and she is shot. Her fingers slip from his grasp and she falls. From the Western side of the Wall, Leamas hears a Western agent calling to him, "Jump, Alec! Jump, man!" and among other voices, Smiley's. Seeing Liz dead, Leamas climbs back down the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall. The border guards then shoot him dead.

Cultural impact[edit]

At its publication during the Cold War (1945–91), the moral presentation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) rendered it a revolutionary espionage novel by showing the intelligence services of both the Eastern and Western nations as engaging in the same expedient amorality in the name of national security. John le Carré also presented his western spy as a morally burnt-out case.

The espionage world of Alec Leamas features love as a three-dimensional, problematic, emotion that can have disastrous consequences to those involved. Moreover, good does not always vanquish evil in Leamas's world.[5] In the 1960s, some reviewers criticised Alec Leamas’s resultant defeatism; The Times said, "the hero must triumph over his enemies, as surely as Jack must kill the giant in the nursery tale. If the giant kills Jack, we have missed the whole point of the story.”[6]

In her essay Is Common Human Decency a Scarce Commodity in Popular Literature?, Margaret Compton contrasts the ending of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold with the ending of Call for the Dead: "Le Carré's début book ends with [George] Smiley feeling deeply guilty about having killed Dieter Frey, the idealistic East German spy who had been Smiley's agent and friend during the Second World War. Leamas and Liz, in the The Spy Who Came in from the Cold both make a diametrically opposite moral choice in that each values their personal relationship over any political loyalty.

Time magazine, while including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in its top 100 novels list, stated the novel was "a sad, sympathetic portrait of a man who has lived by lies and subterfuge for so long, he's forgotten how to tell the truth."[7]


  • Alec Leamas: A British field agent in charge of East German espionage.
  • Hans-Dieter Mundt: Leader of the East German Secret Service, the Abteilung.
  • Fiedler: East German spy, and Mundt's deputy.
  • Liz Gold: English librarian and member of the Communist Party.
  • Control: Head of British Intelligence
  • George Smiley: British spy, supposedly retired.
  • Peter Guillam: British spy.
  • Karl Riemeck: East German bureaucrat turned British spy.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Le Carré's book won a 1963 Gold Dagger award from the Crime Writers' Association for "Best Crime Novel". Two years later the US edition was awarded the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for "Best Mystery Novel". It was the first work to win the award for "Best Novel" from both mystery writing organisations. Screenwriters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, who adapted the book for the 1965 movie, received an Edgar the following year for "Best Motion Picture Screenplay" for an American movie.

In 2005, the fiftieth anniversary of the Dagger Awards, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was awarded the "Dagger of Daggers," a one-time award given to the Golden Dagger winner regarded as the stand-out among all fifty winners over the history of the Crime Writers' Association. The novel was selected as one of the All-Time 100 Novels by TIME Magazine.[7]


  1. ^ "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. Retrieved 25 May 2010. 
  2. ^ "Publishers Weekly list". top 15 spy novels. 
  3. ^ "Publishers Weekly list". spy vs spy vs spy. 
  4. ^ Norman J. W. Goda. "CIA files relating to Heinz Felfe, SS officer and KGB spy". 
  5. ^ See, e.g., Barley, Tony. Taking Sides: The Fiction of John le Carré. Open University Press, 1986, p. 22.
  6. ^ The Times, 13 September 1968.
  7. ^ a b Grossman, Lev. All-TIME 100 Novels, TIME Magazine, 2005. Retrieved 29 October 2007.

External links[edit]