Sunday, November 29, 2009

#1 - "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" by John Le Carre

The first book on the list is done! It is of course only a drop in the bucket so to speak, but it's a start. The list has officially begun.

Alec Lemas is a British spy during the cold war. He enjoys drinking and women. While it may sound like James Bond, the similarities end there. In John Le Carre’s 1961 novel, Lemas is a spy looking to get out of the intelligence game, and looks forward to retirement. He takes on one final assignment, the riskiest of his career, which he believes is to kill an East German agent and will allow him to finally retire.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is nothing like one of Ian Fleming’s novels, painting a far more realistic and much less romantic picture. Lemas enjoys drinking, but not sipping martinis while uttering witty one-liners, rather getting drunk as quickly as possible. He enjoys womanizing, but rather than chasing a series of sexy foreign agents, he chases lonely women whose lives are more pathetic than his own. He lives in a small, shabby apartment in London, is divorced, doesn’t have any friends, and doesn’t have any money. He wears old suits and eats canned food and isn’t very likeable. He lives within the bleak back drop of the cold war, in dreary working class areas of London and divided Berlin. Sympathy for the protagonist is often achieved as a result of his depressing existence.

Writing from his own experiences working for M5, Le Carre describes a behind-the-scenes look at espionage and the cold war, describing a world of men who are completely absorbed in their profession. They’re willing to kill if asked to do so, and must spend every waking moment being suspicious of not only their enemies but also their allies. We follow Lemas from his public self-destruction, which results in a prison term, to his journey into East Germany, working with the other side. But the suspicions that he’s always had of everybody around him prove to be true as he becomes a pawn in a much larger plot.

While it wasn't at all what I would expect from a novel with 'spy' in the title, I was not disappointed. Le Carre's paints a perfect picture of dreary, almost depressing settings; ideal for a tale about the self destruction of the title character. The plot in the meantime, while again so different from any Bond story, was as intriguing as any other story I'd ever read. Add to that, I couldn't help but sympathize with Alec Lemas, which I find always makes for a better read. If you don't care about the main character I doubt you'll care how the book turns out. At the risk of gushing, I will say it was a great start to the list of 100 novels, and I can only hope I enjoy reading the other 99 as much as I did this one.

Time magazine’s original review from January 17th, 1964 can be found here:,9171,875631,00.html?internalid=atb100

Next up is Evelyn Waugh’s 1946 novel, Brideshead Revisited.

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