NOT JAMES BOND (THE REREADING SERIES-PART I)
Now that I am squarely in my dotage, I thought it would be interesting to revisit some of the books I loved in my younger days. Perhaps I would experience the same rapture I once knew. Or maybe I would give myself a forehead slap and ask, "What was I thinking?!" Who knew?
I don't know why I pulled out John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, written in 1963. I probably first read it in my twenties, and I've probably read it two other times in my life, but it had been at least fifteen or twenty years since the last time. It also generated quite a good film version in 1965, directed by Marty Ritt, starring Richard Burton in one of his greatest roles.
LeCarre's novel could not have been more perfectly timed. It was located in Berlin at the height of the Cold War, set at the wall that tragically divided the city into zones. It is a novel about espionage and spies, but it is nothing like the Ian Fleming novels that depicted another agent of MI6, James Bond, as some sort of idealized human being, equally as comfortable with hedonistic pleasures as with gunplay and explosives. Readers of LeCarre's book were stunned by the delineation of spycraft that was grounded in a smarmy, squalid reality. They made it an instant bestseller.
The author, who briefly worked for MI6, brought a degree of verisimilitude to the British intelligence services that had only, heretofore, been superficially sketched. It was difficult to tell whether he was creating whole cloth the practices and jargon of the bureaucratic functionaries ("moles" and "The Circus" and "scalphunters") or whether he was revealing state secrets!
Protagonist Alec Leamas is asked by Control, the leader of MI6, to perform "one last job" before hanging it up in the service. He is part of a plot to entice the East Germans to see him as disaffected and therefore vulnerable to be turned as a double agent. The plan works nearly perfectly but is soon complicated by the appearance of Liz, a woman (who is also a member of Britain's Communist Party) Leamas took as a lover shortly before being whisked behind the Iron Curtain.
The plot turns several times in the novel and, of course, there are multiple plot twists that compel the reader to start the next chapter. I still found it to be a riveting short masterpiece. I have always loved the works of Graham Greene, who so deftly drew morally compromised characters. LeCarre clearly follows in the same tradition but while LeCarre is not Greene's equal as a prose stylist, he may be better at the creation of a fictional world. This was only LeCarre's third book, but it could not have been more professionally constructed. A decade later, when LeCarre wrote his masterpiece, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he was a better writer, with a greater facility for language, but this work remains very powerful some fifty plus years on. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is not a crime novel, but it won Best Crime Novel in 1963. It won Best Mystery Novel too, and it is a crackerjack mystery.
I enjoyed the rereading so much that I screened the film again (I hadn't seen it in 6-8 years). It remains a blistering work, largely due to Richard Burton's disturbing, subtle, understated performance. It was Burton at his best. He received seven (count 'em, seven) Oscar nominations but never won.
I so enjoyed my rereading experience that I picked up my copy of Tinker Tailor and dug into that and watched the original six-part miniseries broadcast on the BBC back in 1979. I then dug out or bought a small library of other LeCarre works. I'd like to go through them all!
The author (see above) has just finished his latest work (at 85!), which will be published in September. It harkens back to the days of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and brings back some favorite characters. My rereading exercise has started off wonderfully.