Literature: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

"What the hell do you think spies are!? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?"
Alec Leamas

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is the third novel by John le Carré.

After the death of a number of British-run agents in East Berlin, SIS officer and head of Berlin station Alec Leamas is recalled to London by the head of the service, Control. When Leamas refuses a demotion, Control then suggests to him a plan to bring about the downfall of Hans-Dieter Mundt, the agent of East German Intelligence responsible for the death of Leamas's agents. But the mission is not what it seems...

Reflecting the cold and somewhat inhuman nature of intelligence work in the early days of the Cold War, the novel suggests the uncomfortable thought that the difference between the Western intelligence agencies and their opponents was very little indeed, with both resorting to underhanded methods to achieve their aims.

A screen adaptation of the novel starring Richard Burton as Leamas and directed by Martin Ritt was released in 1965.


  • Adaptation Name Change: Liz Gold becomes Nan Perry in the movie, supposedly because the studio feared it would be too easy for people to take lines out of context to refer to Burton and his then-wife Elizabeth Taylor.
  • Agents Dating: An important plot point. Although Liz Gold is not an agent (she's a secretary of a local cell of the Communist Party of Great Britain), her relationship with the head of the West Berlin office of the British Secret Intelligence Service, Alec Leamas, is noteworthy in the context of this trope due to the conflict between love and loyalty from the couple, to the point of Leamas telling all the information in exchange for her freedom. They manage to overcome the issues, albeit at a high price.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: At the end of the book, Leamas is dead, Control has helped Mundt to destroy Fiedler's evidence against him so thoroughly that he is all but immune future attacks of that kind, Fiedler is probably going to be executed, and Liz Gold, the only other potentially troublesome loose end for Mundt and Control, has been shot dead at the Berlin Wall.
  • Batman Gambit: Control's plan for dealing with Mundt rests on the assumptions that Fielder hates Mundt and will jump at the opportunity to bring him down, that the East Germans distrust the British so much that if the Circus outs Mundt as a British double agent, the Stasi will readily suspect that it is a frame-up, and that Fiedler, as a Jew, will be mistrusted by the still-antisemitic East German authorities. And Control is exactly right.
  • Blond Guys Are Evil: Mundt is a blond man, a Stasi agent, an ex-Nazi, a murderer, and a traitor.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Liz.
  • Commie Nazis: Mundt is a former Nazi agent, who joined the Communinsts.
  • Darker and Edgier: For its era, anyhow. Unlike James Bond novels, this book tries hard to prevent spydom from looking glamorous.
  • Downer Ending: Mundt and Control have won, Fiedler is all but certain to be killed, Mundt has arranged Liz Gold's betrayal and death, and Leamas lets the Volkspolizei kill him out of despair.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: George Smiley is a lot less humane and quite ruthless in his supporting role. The novel does explain that he's left the Circus due to moral issues, and that Control has left him in the dark over the nastier aspects of this particular mission.
    • It goes beyond George Smiley. The Quest for Karla depicts Peter Guillam as Smiley's most beloved protege, who is absolutely loyal and grateful to Smiley. Putting Call for the Dead together with this book, it is implied that he helped his boss's attempted murderer escape Britain.
  • Fake Defector: Leamas has to pretend to quit the SIS (spectacularly) and join the East German Intelligence Service to pull this plan off.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Not quite, but the book comes close. While the German Democratic Republic is depicted as a brutal, soul-crushing regime, the Circus is happy to do some very nasty things and employs consorts with some pretty unsavory characters.
  • Hero of Another Story: George Smiley gets the occasional mention, helps to spring Control's trap for the East Germans, and appears in maybe one or two scenes.
  • Improvised Weapon: Leamas manages to kill a man with a wooden matchbox.
  • Informed Attribute: We are told that Fielder is "a savage little bastard" (in one character's words) who once nearly killed a captured British agent under interrogation, but he is almost unfailingly courteous to Leamas. His behavior towards Leamas is justified, however, because he sees Leamas as a potential weapon to use against Mundt.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: See the aforementioned Batman Gambit. The East Germans expect British subterfuge and the Circus knows that Fiedler is on to Mundt, so Control sets up a sham mission to expose Mundt as a British asset and then blows the lid on the operation, letting the East Germans think they've outfoxed the Circus when in fact this leaves Mundt free to keep spying for the British, and more secure than he was before.
  • May-December Romance: Leamas is in his late forties or early fifties and has a divorce under his belt. Liz Gold is an early 20's librarian.
  • Not So Different: This was one of the first commercially successful novels to say so about the Cold War.
  • One Last Job: The title refers to Leamas's desire to quit the spy game; he'll be able to after he completes this job.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Leamas observes that Mundt has a surprisingly pleasant voice.
  • Spy Drama: A Trope Codifier for the Stale Beer version.
  • Suicide by Border Guard: Leamas lets the Volkspolizei shoot him after he sees that Liz has been killed. Judging by The Reveal about Mundt's allegiance and the sentries' reluctance to fire on Leamas despite having a clear shot, it seems likely that only Liz was supposed to die.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Not in this story, but the story inflicts one on Le Carre's first Smiley novel, Call for the Dead. In the previous novel, the primary antagonist, Mundt, is mentioned as having escaped capture and returned to East Germany. In this novel, The Reveal is that Mundt was in fact captured and turned into a double agent.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: One of the people Leamas works with in East German intelligence is a True Believer in Communism.
  • Worthy Adversary: The same. They get on very well together and like each other as persons, though Leamas has the duty to feed him false information.

Alternative Title(s):

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold