Having just indulged my sweet tooth with Ian Fleming's spy candy, I sampled the more refined pleasures of John le Carré, who wrote a tense spy thriller without any gadgets or heroics or sultry seductresses. Instead, Alec Leamas is a middle-aged alcoholic on the verge of retirement from the spy game; burned out, embittered, and about to be cashiered for a string of failures while running England's spy network in Cold War Berlin. He's recruited for one final mission: to target the dangerous East German spymaster who's been responsible for the deaths of so many Western agents. His mission is almost derailed when he falls in love with a naive librarian who also happens to be a member of the Communist Party in England. There's some action and danger, but only in a few quick, confusing encounters in the dark. And there are tons of twists and double-crosses; everything works out logically in the end, but along the way le Carré jerks you around making you think first one person, then the other is the traitor, the double-agent, the one who's really been pulling the strings all along. The ending is a bitter and amoral one as Leamas discovers what he already knew, that there may be good guys and bad guys in the Cold War, but everyone is gray in the dark.
This was a great
spy story. Read Fleming for fun, but read le Carré for a more literary thriller where spies actually act like spies, and believable human beings, and everyone is a little bit dirty. Le Carré writes without a lot of excess description, but the dialog brings the characters to life, and it's the plot where he excels. There are no gratuitous scenes catering to the men's magazine readership (like with naked gypsy catfights
) and a lot less of the racist, sexist pandering; this is a much more intellectual story. The climax is a showdown between rival secret agents but not on a speeding train but in an East German secret trial where control over the outcome bounces back and forth like a ping-pong ball, carried entirely by characters delivering monologues.