The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

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This article is about the book. For the film, see The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (film).
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 Department"), the East German Secret Service, who is working under diplomatic cover in London. When uncovered by agents George Smiley and Peter Guillam of the British intelligence service "the Circus" 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 services.


The West Berlin office of the Circus under the command of Station Head Alec Leamas, has been performing poorly. 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 operatives left, Leamas is recalled to London by Control, the chief of the Circus. He asks Leamas to stay "in the cold" for one last mission: to fake the defection of a senior East German operative named Mundt, and then to expose him as a British double agent. Fiedler, one of Mundt's subordinates — who suspects that Mundt is already a double agent — is targeted as a potentially useful adjunct. George Smiley and his former assistant, Peter Guillam, brief Leamas for his mission.

To bring Leamas to the East Germans' attention as a potential defector, the Circus sacks him, leaving him with only a small pension. He takes and loses a miserable job in a run-down library. There, he meets 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. He asks Control to leave Liz alone, and Control agrees. Leamas then initiates the mission by assaulting a local grocer in order to get himself arrested.

After his release from jail he is approached by an East German recruiter. He is taken abroad, first to the Netherlands, then to East Germany, en route meeting progressively higher echelons of the Abteilung, the East German intelligence service. During his debriefing he drops casual hints about British payments to a double agent in the Abteilung. Meanwhile, Smiley and Guillam appear at Liz's apartment in London, claiming to be friends of Leamas. They question her about him, and offer financial help.

In East Germany, Leamas meets Fiedler. The two men engage in extended ideological and philosophical discussions, contrasting Leamas's pragmatism with Fiedler's idealistic outlook. Leamas observes that the young, brilliant Fiedler — a Jew who spent the Second World War in Canada — is concerned about the morality of his actions, and believes that what he is doing is right. Mundt, on the other hand, is a brutal, opportunistic mercenary, an ex-Nazi who joined the Communists after the war out of expediency, and remains an anti-Semite. Leamas concludes that helping Fiedler destroy Mundt is a worthy act. Meanwhile, Liz is invited to East Germany for a Communist Party information exchange.

The power struggle within the Abteilung is exposed when Mundt orders Fiedler and Leamas arrested and tortured. The leaders of the East German régime intervene after learning that Fiedler applied for an arrest warrant for Mundt on the same day that Mundt arrested Fiedler and Leamas. Fiedler and Mundt are released, then 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 has matched 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 presents other evidence 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 witness. She admits that Smiley paid 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. Realizing that their cover is now blown, Leamas offers to tell all in exchange 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. During cross-examination, Fiedler asks Mundt how he knew that someone had paid off Liz's lease — because Liz never would have spoken about it. Mundt hesitates before answering — "a second too long, Leamas thought." When the Tribunal halts the trial and arrests Fiedler, Leamas finally understands the true nature of Control and Smiley's scheme.

Liz is confined to a jail cell, but Mundt releases her, and puts her in a car that will take her to freedom; Leamas is at the wheel. During their drive to Berlin, where an escape route awaits, Leamas explains everything: The "fake" bank account payments were real; Mundt is, in fact, a double agent reporting to Smiley and Guillam. The target of Leamas's mission was Fiedler, not Mundt, because Fiedler was close to exposing Mundt as a double agent. Leamas and Liz unwittingly provided Mundt with the means of discrediting Leamas, and in turn, Fiedler. Their intimate relationship facilitated the plan. Liz realizes to her horror that as a result of their actions, the Circus has succeeded in protecting its asset, the despicable Mundt, at the expense of the thoughtful and idealistic Fiedler. Liz asks what will become of Fiedler; Leamas replies that he will most likely be executed.

Liz's love for Leamas overcomes her moral disgust, and she accompanies Leamas to a break in the wire fronting the Berlin Wall, from which they can climb the wall and escape to West Berlin. Leamas climbs to the top of the wall; as he reaches down to help Liz, they are caught in the spotlights of the East German border guards. Liz is shot. Her fingers slip from his grasp and she falls. From the Western side of the Wall, Leamas hears Western agents — including Smiley — shouting, "Jump, Alec! Jump, man!" Leamas stares at Liz's lifeless form, then climbs back down the Eastern side of the wall, where he too is shot and killed.

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 portrays 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 The Circus
  • 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" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-04-26. 
  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]