The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John Le Carré

I had never read a spy novel. I’d assumed they consisted of numerous chase scenes and gun fights –  just like the Bond films my husband loves but I find tedious and repetitive. I’m always willing to confront my prejudices so when Annabel selected The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as her book of the year I decided to give it a try. It was very different from my expectations, but I’m afraid I don’t think I’m a fan of spy stories.

I was immediately struck by the quality of the writing. For some reason I’d expected it to be fast paced and of an average writing quality, but I was wrong. The pace was actually quite slow and contained many descriptive passages. I really enjoyed reading the beginning of the book and getting to know Leamas, the disgraced agent asked to perform one last mission.

Unfortunately the book went downhill as it progressed. Too many characters were introduced and I struggled to follow who they were. I have since discovered that earlier books introduced many of these people and I think knowing their backgrounds would have been hugely beneficial to appreciating this book.

I also came to realise that real spying bares little resemblance to James Bond films. Real spying is quite dull – it involves a lot of time waiting and making complex negotiations with others. I became bored with the lack of action and increasingly reluctant to continue reading.

I thought the last chapter was fantastic, but I’m afraid it was too little too late.

Annabel’s review indicates that she is a big fan of spy novels: she has read many of Le Carré’s other books and has watched the film. I have a feeling that this all contributed to her increased enjoyment of the book as I’m sure it gets better the more you understand the motivations of the numerous characters. I’m pleased that I’ve read this modern classic, but I’m afraid I’m not going to be rushing to read more spy stories.

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  1. Sandy says:

    I’ve never read this author, but I do know he is considered the king of spy novels. I have read Alan Furst, who also writes these types of books and I’ve enjoyed them. You’re right, they are generally nothing like James Bond, not alot of fast chases but always risking their lives. It might not have knocked your socks off, but hey! You tried it!

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I think the fact that I made it all the way to the end shows the skill of his writing. I can see why he is so loved, but I guess I’m just not a spy story lover.

  2. cbjames says:

    If you’re just going to read one spy novel, this is a good one to read. It’s on of the best from Mr. Le Carre’s earlier novels. The movie with Richard Burton is quite good, too.

    I think those of us who read spy novels look askance on James Bond. His stories are really adventure novels. Bond doesn’t do much spying. Great spy novels are like very suspenseful police procedurals. They do have thrills, but they are largely descriptions of work. They are a slow burn rather than a fast ride.

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, My father-in-law has just read this review. He is a big Le Carre fan and was shocked that I’d started with this one. He doesn’t think it is a good idea for this to be the first spy novel a person reads as you lose so much by not reading the beginning of the series. I don’t know which one is the best to start with, but I think watching the films might be the right thing for me to do – perhaps that will give me a better appreciation of the books.

  3. I am with you, spy movies and books are not for me although this one did sound like it had potential! Hope you enjoy your reading week :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Sheila, It did entertain me in some parts so was a partial success. Hopefully my reading week will improve from here though :-)

  4. Erin says:

    I’m not much of a spy story person either, but I, too, picked this one up! I’m not expecting to be converted into a spy story fan, but I figure if I’m going to try the genre I should go with something of a classic.

    1. Jackie says:

      Erin, It is good to know I have at least given it a try. I hope that you enjoy your experience slightly more than I did.

  5. Annabel says:

    I’m glad you recognised the quality of Le Carre’s writing Jackie even if the book wasn’t completely to your taste!

    I do adore spy novels and this is one of the very best. But I do love James Bond too – but that’s for un-PC escapist fantasy, 007 bears nothing to reality.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, Despite the fact I didn’t love it I’m still pleased that you persuaded me to give it a try. It is nice to have my misconceptions corrected and to cross another classic off my list.

      The ending was fantastic and I am still thinking about it which can only be a sign of the book’s quality. It is such a shame the rest of the book didn’t have the same emotional impact.

  6. Amanda says:

    I have to admit this one has never really much appealed to me and after your review, probably even less…sorry it wasn’t great.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amanda, Sometimes it is good to recognise that a book might not be your sort of thing :-)

  7. JoV says:

    I am thinking if I would be feeling the same way like you do. I am not a spy story person too, murder mystery I can do, but not spy. The few I had read has been disappointing. But I am eyeing on The Constant Gardener for a long while, and wanted to read the book before I catch Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz on DVD, (both actors are my favourites to watch). I’ll most probably have a go at The Constant Gardener and see what I think about John Le Carre.

    Thanks for the honest review Jackie.

    1. Jackie says:

      JoV, I like some murder mysteries too (although I can be a bit fussy!) I’m not sure I want to watch The Constant Gardener, but if it comes on TV I might watch the first section and see if it appeals. I look forward to seeing your thoughts on it instead :-)

  8. It’s a shame you didn’t enjoy it that much. I thought it was a good, understated novel that, while being quite emotionally cold and distant, was actually rather thrilling in a more substantial way than James “tell everyone my real name” Bond.

    I don’t particularly think you have to read earlier novels to enjoy or understand it but perhaps I’m used to stories like these. In fact, it reminded me of films (stylistically not plot wise) like The Conversation and The Lives of Others which have a very tangible grittiness to them. Actually, The Conversation is a great film to watch with a bloody brilliant performance from Gene Hackman.

    Also, BBC’s production of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy is still one of Auntie Beeb’s best things.

    Constant Gardener isn’t worth the time to read or to watch.

    1. Jackie says:

      DamnedConjuror, I’m afraid I need an emotional connection to the characters I read about. I think I could have loved this book if there had been that connection – especially given the last chapter.

      The Lives of Others is one of my favourite films, but I haven’t heard of The Conversation before. I’m intrigued by the fact you group them together and so will see if I can watch it soon. I’ll also see if I can get hold of TTSS and the other Le Carre films – I think I’ll enjoy them better in that medium. Thanks for all the tips :-)

  9. Dorte H says:

    I do read thrillers now and then, but spy stories? No, I am sure they are written BY men FOR men.

    1. Falaise says:

      Except obviously for Stella Rimington’s spy novels, which have the benefit of her insight as a former Head of MI5.

    2. Jackie says:

      Dorte, I normally get into trouble when I start gender stereotyping, but in general it seems that men are the biggest fan of this genre. I’m no expert though and I’m sure a lot of women love it too :-)

  10. Falaise says:

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this – I think le Carre is a wonderful writer. I wonder whether you might enjoy some of his non-Cold War novels better. They are less “genre” and more “general” novels.

    1. Jackie says:

      Falaise, Thanks for the recommendation. I think you may be right – I can see how I’d enjoy an author of his quality if he wrote in another genre.

  11. Kathleen says:

    I’m not big on spy novels myself but have heard that Le Carre is the master. I’m sure I will read one of his at some point but after reading your comments here, should probably plan to read one of the earlier novels where characters are introduced.

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