The Short Version: After the head of Berlin Station’s last agent is killed just before he could make a break for the West, Control recalls Alec Leamas to London to put him on the shelf – or so Leamas assumes. Instead, Control offers him one final mission before he can come out of the cold: a revenge mission, to take down the man who killed his agents. Leamas ‘turns’ and plays the defector – but even he doesn’t know the full scope of the plan he’s played right into.
The Review: This. This is it. This is, perhaps, the greatest spy novel ever written. Clocking in at just over 200 pages, it reads like a gunshot – I finished it in less than eight hours of reading. The tension builds and rolls so brilliantly, so effortlessly, and le Carré has such a talent for deception that the ending does indeed catch you entirely off-guard. It’s just bloody brilliant.
I will say it’s interesting that Penguin is republishing the le Carré novels with such a focus on George Smiley. I mean, I’m thrilled that the covers are getting the redesigns they deserve (a topic which I intend to cover shortly in my next “The Art of The Cover” column) – but they’re setting it up so that the Smiley novels are the lynchpin of the entire body of work. I suppose that’s true to some extent – there are, what, eight or nine novels in which Smiley at least makes an appearance? He’s the link between all of these cold war novels and so it makes sense to publicize his appearance. That and the movie, I suppose. But he’s barely in this book. I mean, descriptively, it’s quite obvious when he appears, long before he’s named. Such a unique figure and one so engrained in my mind, it’s hard to miss him. But he’s a background player in this novel at best – one step above Peter and that’s only because he has a few more lines. The novel is about Leamas.
Granted, I haven’t read the two novels that come before – those’ll be republished at the end of summer and I suppose I’ll pick up with them then. Apparently Mundt plays a large role in at least one of them. We’ll see, I suppose. It’s interesting, though, to’ve read this novel AFTER the so-called “Karla Trilogy” – because I already know what happens next. When the first double-cross is revealed, in the courtroom scene, I was convinced that it had something to do with the mole at the Circus (whose identity I shall keep anonymous for those reading the series in order). And knowing who that was, although he didn’t appear in the novel at all, felt thrilling to me! Even after it was revealed that that was not indeed the case – the play was far different although still stunning – I was thinking about how there was a larger game at play, so many things going on behind the scenes.
The literal end of the novel, of course, directly precipitates the intermediary happenings – the things that come before Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy begins. So there’s that literal connection – it was delightful to see Control alive and doing his thing – but also the broader connection: that sense that this was the Cold War and all of this shit was happening on a level far above what any individual player could comprehend. Leamas’ indignity at the end is only all too right – but what else could he’ve expected? To actually know all the facets of the game? Certainly not.
There’s quite a bit of interesting morality questions to be raised here. Even today, we still treat the West as Good and the East as Evil when we look back. Perhaps it’s just the long-standing love for James Bond – perhaps it’s the fact that we ‘won’ and history is (despite what Julian Barnes might posit) still written by the victors. But we all too often neglect that throughout history (today not being an exception), every ‘side’ in every conflict has always been willing to indulge lesser villains in order to score some sort of upper hand.
(SPOILERS are probably inevitable now)
So someone like Mundt, a Nazi, is an acceptable ally – because he isn’t a Red and he’s feeding us information. This, despite the fact, that he killed all of Leamas’ agents. This is what fires Leamas up at the end and it’s perhaps the most important part of the book, this question. Because you take it away and you’ve still got a damn fine spy novel – but with it, you’re faced with an ethical and moral question that must’ve just rocked people’s world’s when the novel originally came out in the early 60s. It’s a question that rocks people’s worlds today, if you get them off their devices long enough to think about it. It’s similar to the controversy around Mike Daisey’s show The Agony & The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: Mike lied, yes, but the fact is we’re all lying to ourselves. We’re allowing injustices to occur – what’s the greater injustice: that he punched up his story or that terrible things are absolutely totally happening at Foxconn and we don’t care because we just need our little black gadgets? What’s the greater injustice: that Control lied or that he did it to preserve an intelligence asset who’s not a nice person? These are all bad things – but sometimes we have to do bad things in order for good to win out. But that’s not a nice thought to have to reflect on, is it? Leamas isn’t scot-free, either, remember: he was lying too, to the Reds, in order to get revenge. How do you square that?
Rating: 5 out of 5. For sheer brilliance, really. It’s smart, it’s fast, it has some excellent action, raises some major questions, and mostly it just keeps ratcheting up slowly but surely until the final moments – and then the book is done. There’s no falling action. It ends, decisively, as so many of le Carré’s novels do (looking at you, Our Kind of Traitor) – without a thought for the bow. I’m happy to agree that this may well be the best spy novel ever written – because it is simultaneously so cool and utterly revolting.