The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a spy novel written by the great spy novelist John le Carré. He wrote it in 1962, a vintage year if you're a nuclear brinksmanship fan but not so good if you prefer more muted thrills.

Le Carré was a former spook himself, and he got into the spy novel business in part because he was offended by the fantastical qualities of the stuff Ian Fleming was writing. Le Carré thought the intelligence community was interesting enough as it was, grim and grimy, without all the baccarat and femmes fatale. This was his third novel, and it's one of those "genre" pieces that go well beyond the limitations of genre, much like Dune did. It works fine as a "thriller", I suppose, but there's a Serious Novel here. In the good sense, I mean, not like that Thomas Hardy crap.

To "come in from the cold", in the language of British intelligence at the time, was to return from an assignment and stop living under cover and in character: To live a little bit like a normal person again for a little while.

During the Cold War, youngsters1, all Germany was divided in two parts; and the city of Berlin, deep in communist East Germany, was divided in two parts as well. West Berlin was a small and notoriously decadent haven of capitalism in the midst of The Enemy. It was surrounded by a famous wall built by the communists, more to keep their people in than to keep David Bowie and Iggy Pop (decadent, see?) out.

Alec Leamas2 works for British intelligence in West Berlin. He runs a network of agents in East Germany. He's hard to work with, but "Intelligence work has one moral law -- it is justified by results" (p 17). However, the East German counter-intelligence chief, Mundt, has been "rolling up" Leamas's network for years. The book opens with the killing of Leamas's last agent as the man tries to get through a checkpoint in the Berlin Wall, armed with false papers.

Leamas returns to London. He retires in disgrace and takes to drinking heavily. He assaults a grocer who won't extend him credit, and ends up in jail. He's not any old failure, though: He's somebody who knows things the Eastern Bloc would love to know. Betrayed and discarded by his country, he is recruited as a defector by a naïve young woman, an idealistic member of the British communist party. He goes to East Germany.

It's all a con. He's there to give the East Germans information, but not all of it is true. Some of it is; as in chess, you can give away some small advantages for the sake of winning a greater one. He's going to East Germany to finish Mundt.

The elaborate plot dance is a thing of genuine beauty, and Leamas's undercover work is almost heartbreaking in its perfection: He is in character every minute of every day, even in the beginning when there's no reason to imagine that anybody is paying any attention. Every detail of his disintegration is correct.

That's the set-up. The plot unfolds in stranger and more terrible ways than you can imagine, and this is one of those rare books where it really would spoil it for somebody to know in advance. When it snaps shut on you, you will see what I mean.

I can, however, tell you this: Everything is more subtle, more cold, and more terrible than you think. Leamas's superiors are very good at playing chess with human bodies. What does the title mean? In the last moment of his life, Alec Leamas chooses to act as a human being instead of an intelligence agent.

In 1965, this novel was made into a movie, starring Richard Burton. It's black and white. I once saw just the last ten minutes of it on the television, and if that's any guide, it's well worth seeing if you've got a TV.

I'm not sure quite where to go to check this, so I'll just pass it along:

Siobhan says Isn't this book originally in German? Could you somewhere mention the original title: Der Spion, der aus der Kälte kam?

1 In five years, that will be justified, so can I have my fun a bit early? Please?

2 Say "Leamas" out loud, with equal emphasis on both syllables.