Espionage and the Individual: Anaylzing le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold


I’ve finally gotten back to an espionage-related topic with this latest essay. I did a review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and gave it mixed marks, but Spy Who Came in makes me want to revisit it.

Alec Leamas in John le Carre’s 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is not all like Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Where Bond is a hero fighting SPECTRE and Soviet SMERSH, Leamas is a jaded and morally ambiguous man. Through Alec Leamas, le Carre presents a fiction of the Cold War that is the polar opposite of the mythic version created by Fleming and television shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Both East and West have the same practices in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; the spies in le Carre’s world have few or no moral scruples.

If the novel could have a “thesis,” Leamas’ handler, Control says it early on: “’our methods—ours and those of the opposition—have become much the same’” (le Carre 16). John le Carre was an actual British intelligence officer, making the novel more realistic than popular depictions of spy craft. His fictionalized Cold War matches up to the reality of East versus West espionage than the romanticized depiction in James Bond or other spy fictions.

From the first chapters of the novel, le Carre shatters a pretense of a moral battle in Western versus Soviet espionage. The image of the Berlin Wall in the first chapter implies a separation between the two worlds, yet as the novel progresses, it becomes clear there is little difference between the two sides. Morality only emerges because of despair and trauma (Maddox 163). The deeper a character is within the world of espionage, the less they have clear moral or ideological framework. Leamas knows that West and the Soviet Bloc are little different; when Liz Gold reveals that she is a Marxist, she “[blushes] like a small girl…angry and relieved he didn’t care” (le Carre 32). Liz’s revelation is anticlimactic. On one trajectory, it is shocking that Leamas doesn’t care, but given Control’s speech to Alec earlier, it only proves le Carre’s theme that espionage is less about ideological conflict and more about winning for one’s side.


Richard Burton as Leamas in the 1965 film adaptation

Part of the ambiguity in the novel comes from the theatrics of espionage. Control, as the name implies, is Leamas and Mundt’s handler who directs operations. Individuals are just players with a need-to-know of their role. Even Leamas is shocked by the revelation Mundt was an agent all along toward the end of the novel (le Carre 168-173). Fiedler is the most principled character in the story and truly believes in the struggle of Communism against the West. Le Carre inverts the popular tropes of Cold War fiction by showing the antagonist as the honest, ideologically consistent character. Leamas represents the opposite; he is mercenary-like figure who assumes whatever act or mask necessary to complete a mission, much like an actor assumes a part. Leamas’ apparent decline into alcoholism and defection, while never explicitly stated as such, is a ruse to fool the Communists (le Carre 19-24). Leamas and Mundt are similar in this regard; Control describes Mundt as “‘Ex-Hitler Youth …Not at all the intellectual kind of Communist. A practitioner of the cold war,’” to which Leamas says, “‘Like us’” (le Carre 17). With the later revelation that Mundt is a British agent, this is consistent with the rest of the novel, as Fiedler reveals Mundt’s treachery. The ethical framework of Spy Who Came in from the Cold is ideological grounding or an actual identity, as opposed to an assumed mask.

The relationship between Fiedler, Mundt, and Leamas is an exploration of Cold War political tensions. Through these characters and the conventions of the spy novel, Le Carre writes political analysis. While both sides have their moral ambiguities, the most principled character is the East German intelligence officer Fiedler. Mundt (the novel’s apparent antagonist) sets up Fiedler as a traitor for “‘Conspiring to sabotage the security of the people,’” (le Carre 154). Fiedler is the foil to Leamas. One of the tensions in the novel is between characters with a secure identity, like Fiedler, and those that assume whatever ideology or identity suits their mission such as Mundt and Leamas. Le Carre’s portrayal of Western moral ambiguity is based in fact. The Central Intelligence Agency protected war criminals Klaus Barbie and other former members of the SS as part of an operation to keep SS networks intact for anti-Communist operations (Scott 16).


Klaus Barbie, an SD officer and war criminal who allegedly went on to work for American intelligence services in South America

Control’s initial characterization of Mundt as “ex-Hitler Youth” is another part of the theatrics of espionage; Mundt is Leamas’ enemy until the plot changes. Compartmentalizing each actor in the operation is another part of the façade. As Fiedler explains to Leamas: “‘it is axiomatic of intelligence technique…each link of the chain be kept…in ignorance of the others’” (le Carre 178).

Le Carre uses Liz Gold in order to show the ignorance of civilians. Liz is a Communist and regularly attends Party meetings. Her organization takes advantage of Alec’s assault and arrest for their paper, calling it “a straight case of protest” (le Carre 99). Le Carre uses this episode to comment on how surface level actors in the East-versus-West battle view the world through their ideological goggles, in contrast to the intelligence agents who know that these systems are trappings for what is ultimately a Hobbesian, rather than moral, battle. At the same time, the intelligence services need these actors in order to give them a mandate to operate. Liz is also fooled by Alec’s ruse at first. Her idea of Alec is based on who he is at the library, and she holds out hope he might come back (le Carre 98). Liz is a symbol of the naïve public, who fall for the intelligence establishment’s official story. The historical counterparts of the intelligence agencies did the same thing; as an intelligence officer for both MI5 (domestic) and MI6 (foreign) le Carre was probably aware of these kinds of schemes. In the German Democratic Republic, the state media played up the threat of Western infiltration and imperialist takeover to citizens, and alleged West German government officials of having Nazi backgrounds (Maddrell 242). The American Central Intelligence Agency had a similar scheme called Operation Mockingbird, where the agency hired journalists or trained agents to be journalists as part of their operations (Bernstein). Le Carre shows everyone, even civilians, play a role in the intelligence agencies’ scripts.

Fiedler challenges the reader’s preconceived notions about the Eastern Bloc. Leamas begins to examine himself and his side’s motives with Fiedler, serving as a kind of proxy for the reader. Fiedler asks about the inner working of British intelligence, yet “most of all he asked about their philosophy” (le Carre 123). His concern is about something that transcends the struggle for power between the two sides. Fiedler’s concern for morality and philosophy, however, do him no good in the world of espionage. For both Leamas and Fiedler, their respective bureaucracies are the enemy; Control withholds information from Alec while the East Germans arrest Fiedler, even though Mundt is actually the double agent. Le Carre’s intention is to show how the threat faced by both East and West is not an external enemy, but the threat of conspirator s within the system (Neuse 300). Mercenary men like Mundt make the threat of ideologically motivated actors attacking the system from outside far less likely than an insider getting a better deal from the outside actor, leading to constant paranoia in the espionage world. Mundt has a corollary in historical espionage. Kim Philby was a British intelligence officer, who spied for the KGB and ruined the lives of a number of his friends and colleagues. Philby was no political miscreant like Mundt; his father was a British colonial administrator in India (Hackard). By looking at the history of the Cold War, we can see the influence of reality on Le Carre’s characters.

In the midst of the amoral fight for dominance in the novel, Alec Leamas begins to develop a conscience. In the final chapter, he tells Liz the operation: “makes me sick with shame and anger and…but I’ve been brought up differently, Liz; I can’t see it in black and white…Fiedler lost and Mundt won. London won—that’s the point it was a foul, foul operation… But it’s paid off, and that’s the only rule” (le Carre 215). He has a realization of how operations have damaged his psyche and how perverse the conflict is. The only way Leamas can come back in from the cold is death, and in an act of love to Liz he steps down from the wall and the East German guards kill him like they did her (le Carre 224-225). The grim conclusion of the novel shows how men with a conscience like Leamas and Fiedler cannot survive in the cutthroat world of espionage. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold shatters the illusion that the Cold War is a good-versus-evil struggle. Le Carre renders a grim, fatalistic struggle where ethics and morality are either absent or ambiguous.


Works Cited: (Note: Most of these articles are in academic databases which require a paid membership or institutional affiliation)

Bernstein, Carl. “The CIA and the Media.” Carl Bernstein. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Le Carre, John. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.

Hackard, Mark. “Philby and the Betrayal of the West.” Espionage History Archive. N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

Maddox, Tom. “Spy Stories: The Life and Fiction of John Le Carré”. The Wilson Quarterly (1976-) 10.4 (1986): 158–170.

Maddrell, Paul. “What We Have Discovered About The Cold War Is What We Already Knew: Julius Mader And The Western Secret Services During The Cold War.” Cold War History 5.2 (2005): 235-258. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Nelson, John. “The Spy Novels of John Le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics.” Rev. of The Spy Novels of John Le Carré: Balancing Ethics and Politics. American Political Science Review Mar. 2001: 249-50. JSTOR. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.

Neuse, Steven M. “Bureaucratic Malaise In The Modern Spy Novel: Deighton, Greene, And le Carre.” Public Administration 60.3 (1982): 293-306. Business Source Premier. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Scott, Peter Dale. “Why No One Could Find Mengele: Allen Dulles and the German SS”. The Threepenny Review 23 (1985): 16–18.


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