Le Carre’s brooding spy thriller is slow in execution but big in substance. At a couple of hundred pages it’s a quick read with a plot engaging in its simplicity. Alec Leamas is an aging British intelligence officer who has recently been heading the Berlin division during the height of the cold war. His network has slowly collapsed over time due to one person – Mundt, an East German who heads their intelligence operations. The novel opens with the death of Karl Reimeck, a German double agent who was the last source of credible information for the Circus (the popular name for the British Secret Service). Anticipating a desk job, Leamas returns to Britain where Control presents him with an opportunity to take out Mundt. This starts an elaborate operation where the subterfuge is so well done that as a reader you are often confused as to what is going on. Leamas succeeds in infiltrating the East German network as a defector and comes in contact with Fielder, Mundt’s second-in-command. Fielder uses Leamas to serve his own agenda as he tries to grab power away from Mundt. Leamas soon finds himself a prisoner of the German Democratic Republic.
Le Carre’s novel is most impressive because of its deep knowledge of how espionage functioned during the Cold War. What truly surprised me was the reach of both British and Russian intelligence in the day when electronic surveillance was nowhere compared to our age of cyber warfare. Their ability to find out extreme personal details verges on the point of incredulity. The art of spying was also reliant on extremely talented artists, for what else can you call them – multi-lingual, sharp-witted, live performers. I wonder what it is like now when spying is done by hackers and satellites. Is there any glamor in the game reeking of smoke-filled rooms in seedy clubs? Are the days of the trench coat spies exchanging messages in cigarette wrappers gone forever?
Le Carre keeps his cards close to his chest making this a page turner. For someone like Leamas, there is only one logical ending but this is fiction and you hope for the best. Until the very end, you follow Leamas’ fate like your own. At the end of this tragedy, I felt strangely disheartened. Not because there are no heroes in the book but because of the realization that there are no heroes in real life. In a game that Leamas played most of his adult life, he couldn’t even tell when he was the pawn. The world of power brokers is not a world of heroes and righteous, it’s of people who can cheat, lie and kill to hold on to power.