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Literature / The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

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"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, published in 1963 as a direct sequel to Call for the Dead.

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 East German Intelligence officer who killed Leamas's agents. But the mission is not what it seems...

Reflecting the cold and somewhat inhuman nature of intelligence work at the height of the Cold War, the novel suggests 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, and that the West was waging the Cold War via means that were incompatible with liberal democracy.

A screen adaptation, directed by Martin Ritt and starring Richard Burton as Leamas, 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, thanks to Control, Mundt has utterly destroyed Fiedler's evidence against him, Fiedler is probably going to be executed, and to tie up lose ends, Liz and Leamas have been shot dead trying to cross the Berlin Wall.
    • It gets worse. The 2017 novel A Legacy of Spies reveals that shortly after Mundt is summoned to Moscow and is never seen again, implying that the mole uncovered in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy blew him to the KGB.
  • Batman Gambit: Control's plan for dealing with Mundt rests on the assumptions that Fiedler 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 an easy scapegoat for the still-antisemitic East Germans.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: Leamas and Fiedler and their respective countries are guilty of plenty, but they at least are either motivated by genuine beliefs or basic human decency. Mundt, by contrast, has no redeeming quality. He is motivated only by greed, cowardice and sadism, and changes affiliation as best suits his interest at any given point in time.
  • Book Ends: The books starts and finishes with an attempt to cross the Berlin Wall. Both are failures. And more than that - both involve the spy getting an innocent woman murdered too.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Liz.
  • Casting Gag: Bernard Lee, who played M in the James Bond series (which John le Carré's work was a deliberate refutation of) here plays a grocer who's beaten up as part of a highly amoral operation.
  • Cerebus Retcon: Two in this story - one for the previous novels, one for this one revealed much later.
    • At the end of Call For The Dead, Mundt, who was wanted in the UK for two murders, didn't escape from Britain: he was captured by MI-5, got turned, and was released. Peter Guillam even went behind Smiley's back to do it.
    • A Legacy of Spies, which serves as a distant sequel to this book, makes an already bleak book even bleaker - after Alec's death, Bill Haydon told his Soviet handlers that Mundt was a mole, and Mundt disappeared. The entire operation was pointless in the long run.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: A couple of times during Alec's "breakdown," a short, round, sad-looking man is mentioned as being nearby. It's Smiley.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Mundt switches from serving the Nazis, to the Stasi, to MI-6. Between his actions in this novel and in Call for the Dead, he seems to have no loyalties whatsoever.
  • Commie Nazis: Mundt is a former Nazi who joined the Communists. He isn't the only one: the East German jailer who detains Liz Gold delivers a vicious rant against Jews.
  • Continuity Nod: The events of Call For The Dead and Smiley's retirement are somewhat important to the plot, and Fielding from A Murder Of Quality is alluded to.
  • Crapsack World: Leamas gives a speech to Liz on how spies use and are used by each other, and are not glamorous world defenders/destroyers at all but are morally weak people trying to stay alive.
    • The film version, which is the quote at the top of this page, is arguably worse: it has Nan (Liz renamed in the film) ask whether the whole operation benefited the heroes or villains, and an upset Leamas tells her there are no good or bad sides or even sides at all; everyone’s just out for an advantage over someone else and will lie, manipulate and destroy each other to get it, no matter if it even benefits them anyway because that’s part of the espionage trade.
  • Darker and Edgier: For its era, anyhow. Unlike James Bond novels, this book tries hard to prevent spydom from looking glamourous.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Having a former Nazi working for the protagonists, and the Jewish character working for the antagonists, is rather uncomfortable—though, of course, this ties in to the Grey-and-Gray Morality of the story, as Leamas notes that really, neither side is better than the others.
  • Despair Event Horizon: When Leamas sees Liz's dead body.
  • Dirty Business: Control regards the whole operation as this, and by the end, so does Leamas, once the extent of its foulness becomes plain to him. It's clear it makes him sick though, and he's trying to convince himself just so he can get through it and put the whole business behind him for good.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Alec Leamas has to do One Last Job before he can "come in from the cold" and retire. In the end, he chooses to be Together in Death with Liz, and "comes in from the cold" of his years of distrust and lack of human connection.
  • Downer Ending: Nobody gets a happy ending except for Mundt and Control. Fiedler is probably going to be killed, Mundt has arranged Liz's death, and Leamas lets the East German Grenztruppen kill him out of despair. The later Cerebus Retcon makes it even worse! Control's plan didn't work out in the end - Bill Haydon eventually gave Mundt to the KGB.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: George Smiley appears a lot less humane and quite ruthless in his supporting role. The novel does explain that he'd left the Circus due to moral issues, and that Control had 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 protegé, 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.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the film, after putting down his binoculars, the first thing Leamas does onscreen, before speaking or even turning his face to the camera, is to pour whiskey into his coffee before drinking it.
  • Evil is Petty: As Leamas is brought up the line to Fiedler, each agent acts in a petty manner to the lower-ranking agent, only to have the same happen to him when he passes on Leamas to their superior.
  • Fake Defector: Leamas has to pretend to quit the SIS (spectacularly) and defect to the East German Intelligence Service to pull this plan off.
  • Foreshadowing: Fiedler asks Leamas if he and London would hypothetically kill an innocent person, to which Leamas responds that it depends on whether there was a need for it. Not "would". "Did". Neither of them know it, but London is doing exactly that, with Leamas as the hypothetical innocent person, because Mundt is their agent and has proven to be very very useful for British Intelligence. Leamas feels sick about it, but he nonetheless defend it as necessary in the ending.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Done many times, with many victims.
    • The Circus tempts the East Germans to recruit Leamas by dramatically dismissing him as an embittered, unreliable drunk whose loyalties are wearing thin, which isn't too far from the truth. To make the ruse extra-convincing, Leamas gets himself arrested and does a stint behind bars.
    • It happens again once Leamas is in the field: Mundt really is a British double agent and Control had sabotaged Leamas's mission to frame Mundt from the start, betting that being the target of a seemingly incompetent frame-up would put Mundt beyond suspicion and let him keep working for MI-6.
    • Mundt himself pulls this off. Fiedler was secretly plotting against Mundt. It's just that Fiedler had been doing this because he suspected that Mundt had been working for the British. Mundt arranges things so that when Fiedler's plans are revealed, they look like a selfish attempt to backstab a superior.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: While the German Democratic Republic is depicted as a brutal, soul-crushing regime, the Circus is willing to do some very nasty things, and the characters note the conflict between stated ends and revealed means.
    • Played straight when referring to the spies themselves. During conversations between Leamas and Fiedler they both observe that although their respective political systems are vastly different, the secret agents fighting the cold war use almost identical methods.
  • Hate Sink: Mundt. He is a ruthless, sadistic and antisemitic murderer in a position of authority, and also a treacherous, cowardly and greedy traitor, killing his own agents left and right to save his own skin.
  • Hero of Another Story: George Smiley gets the occasional mention, helps to spring Control's trap for the East Germans, appears shadowing Leamas in maybe one or two scenes, and is heard shouting from the other side of the Wall at the end.
  • Iconic Sequel Character: Control, the ruthlessly cunning head of the Circus, makes his first appearance in this book, replacing the previous novels' ineffectual Maston.
  • Improvised Weapon: Leamas manages to kill a Stasi guardsman with a wooden matchbox.
  • Informed Attribute: We hear (Leamas's POV) that Fiedler is "a savage little bastard" who nearly tortured at least one captured British agent to death, but he is unfailingly courteous to Leamas. His behavior towards Leamas makes sense, 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 catching on to Mundt's duplicity, so Control sets up a sham mission to expose Mundt as a British asset but then blows the lid on their own 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.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: The novel mentions the twist of Call For The Dead quite casually a number of times: that Elsa Fennan, not Samuel, was the East German spy, and that Mundt killed her and her husband.
  • May–December Romance: Leamas is a divorcé in his late forties, with two adult children. Liz Gold is in her early 20s.
  • The Mole: Hans-Dieter Mundt.
  • Moral Myopia: Liz/Nan lays into Leamas for his amoral mission having killed a man. Leamas throws back at her that her beloved Communists have quite a bit of blood on their hands, and are the people who turned East Germany into the dystopia that we see in the book.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: This is Mundt's MO. He was already a ruthless killer in Call for the Dead, and he hasn't changed in this book. Once he takes over the Stasi, he starts summarily executing any Western agent that his men catch in East Germany, and even sends assassins into West Berlin to kill any who might've gotten away. It works: he annihilates Britain's spy network in Berlin, forcing Leamas to return to England in disgrace. He's doing this because he knows that if Fiedler ever captured one alive, Mundt's role as a double agent might get exposed.
  • Necessary Evil: Both Control and Fiedler regard their whole profession as this. Leamas seems to as well in the ending, but who knows if he really believes it.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Control justify his deceitful operations, to himself at least, with the belief that the Soviets would employ the same tactics as he would.
    Our work, as I understand it, is based on a single assumption that the West is never going to be the aggressor. Thus, we do disagreeable things, but we're defensive. Our policies are peaceful, but our methods can't afford to be less ruthless than those of the opposition, can they? You know, I'd say, uh... since the war, our methods - our techniques, that is - and those of the Communists, have become very much the same. Yes. I mean, occasionally... we have to do wicked things. Very wicked things, indeed. But, uh, you can't be less wicked than your enemies simply because your government's policy is benevolent, can you?
    • Fiedler himself expresses this same sentiment, when Leamas says he and London would kill an innocent person if they felt there was a need for it, Fiedler tells him that in this regard, both sides are the same.
    • Later on, Leamas gripes to Liz that spies on both sides of the Iron Curtain are really the same all over (as seen at the header quote).
  • One Last Job: The title refers to Leamas's desire to quit the spy game; he'll be able to "come in from the cold" after he completes this last job.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: East Germany is a softened version. The trial scene shows that it has some concept of due process and fair trials. But the prison scene makes it clear that its citizens have no freedom of conscience, and the public's only knowledge about Western countries comes from laughably false state propaganda.
  • Propping Up Their Patsy: Leamas's mission is to pretend to defect and frame Mundt, the head of East German intelligence, of being a spy for Britain. Leamas is interrogated by Mundt's subordinate Fiedler, who suspects that Mundt is a Double Agent. During the interrogation, Leamas denies that Mundt is a mole, but still gives Fiedler the evidence that seems to point the finger at Mundt. On a grander scale, this is Control's plan. Fiedler is right that Mundt is working for British intelligence. Leamas's testimony was supposed to give Fiedler the evidence to make his accusation. However, Leamas was revealed to be a Fake Defector during the trial. This discredits the accusations against Mundt and makes it look like Fiedler is the one working for British intelligence.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Leamas served as a British commando during World War II, saw some ghastly things, and occasionally has flashbacks to things like a column of bombed refugees. His problems with alcohol, authority, and lasting relationships are things that real-life veterans suffer from.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Leamas observes that Mundt has a surprisingly pleasant voice, and Mundt never shouts during their interrogation. In Call For The Dead, he's also polite to George Smiley during their one face-to-face meeting, after which Mundt nearly kills Smiley.
  • 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 is dead. Judging by The Reveal about Mundt's true allegiance, and the sentries' reluctance to fire despite having a clear shot, it's possible that only Liz was supposed to die.
  • Surprise Witness: Mundt arranged to bring Liz to Germany to discredit Alec.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Not in this story, but the story inflicts one on Le Carre's first Smiley novel, Call for the Dead, in which the primary antagonist, Mundt, is mentioned as having evaded the British authorities and returned to East Germany. In this novel, The Reveal is that Mundt was in fact captured and turned into a double agent.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Basically everyone to The Chessmaster, Control. Alec's mission was always meant to end in failure, his meeting Liz was arranged from the beginning (though their falling in love was neither planned nor strictly necessary), and Control and Mundt never intended for Liz (a possible loose end) to leave East Germany alive. It's implied that even George Smiley wasn't wise to that last part.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Fiedler in East German intelligence is a True Believer in Communism. He acts as a foil to Mundt, who works for whichever side is on top at the time. And so, it turns out, is Control, who seems to sincerely believe they are fighting for a good cause and in self-defense, but is fully willing to murder an innocent man (aside from being an officer of an enemy country) to continue to employ a treacherous and vicious nazi.
  • Worthy Adversary: Fiedler again. They get on very well together and like each other as people, though Leamas has the duty to feed him false information. Even after everything seemingly fall apart, Leamas makes one last ditch effort to at least save Fiedler (and Elizabeth), and realizing that Fiedler was the real target all along makes him sick.

Alternative Title(s): The Spy Who Came In From The Cold