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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.

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, Control has helped Mundt to utterly destroy Fiedler's evidence against him, Fiedler is probably going to be executed, and Liz and Leamas, the only potentially troublesome loose ends, 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 mistrusted by the still-antisemitic East German authorities.
  • Bookends: 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, showing what the job of a spy is really like) 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.
    • Mundt didn't just escape at the end of Call For The Dead, he was turned. Peter Guillam even went behind Smiley's back to do it.
    • A Legacy of Spies, which serves as a distant sequel to this book, takes it even farther - after Alec's death, Bill Haydon exposed Mundt as a mole and he 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.
  • Commie Nazis: Mundt is a former Nazi agent, who joined the Communinsts.
  • 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.
  • 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: Mundt and Control have won, Fiedler is probably going to be killed, Mundt has arranged Liz's death, and Leamas lets the Volkspolizei kill him out of despair. The later Cerebus Retcon makes it even worse! Control's plan didn't work out - Haydon 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'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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Iconic Sequel Character: Control, ruthlessly cunning head of the Circus, makes his first appearance in this book, replacing Maston from the previous novels.
  • Improvised Weapon: Leamas manages to kill a man 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 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.
  • 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 spy, and that Mundt was the murderer.)
  • 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.
  • The Mole: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 is dead. Judging by The Reveal about Mundt's true allegiance and the sentries' reluctance to fire despite having a clear shot, it seems 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 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.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Basically everyone to The Chessmaster, Control. Alec's mission was always intended to end in failure, he was intended to meet Liz from the beginning (though their falling in love was neither planned nor strictly necessary) and Control and Mundt never intended for Liz (the only possible loose end) to leave East Germany alive. It's even left unclear whether George Smiley knew about 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.
  • 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.

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


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