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.


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Fake Defector: Leamas has to pretend to quit the SIS (spectacularly) and join the East German Intelligence Service to pull this plan off.
  • Hero of Another Story: George Smiley gets the occasional mention, and appears in maybe one or two scenes.
  • Improvised Weapon: Leamas manages to kill a man with a wooden matchbox.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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