This is the novel which made people take John Le Carre seriously. "Once this book hit the stands," he writes in the foreword, "my time of quiet and gradual development was over for good." It's easy to see why the book was so well received; it feels relentlessly authentic. It tells the story of Alec Leamas, formerly in charge of British intelligence in Berlin, who is tasked with bringing down Hans-Dieter Mundt, the murderous East German spymaster. To do so he feigns a breakdown, turning to drink and ending up in prison after attacking a shopkeeper.
The Soviets recruit him and he sets about sewing seeds of doubt around Mundt, painting him as a British double-agent. Needless to say, the plot does not run smoothly and Le Carre throws in some surprising twists before the end.
However it is the characters rather than the plot that make this book so impressive. Spying is about fanaticism, Le Carre shows us; the end always justifies the means and there is no such thing as good or evil. There are only winners and losers.
Sentiment too has no place in this world, as Le Carre demonstrates through Liz Gold, who falls for Leamas as they work together in a library.
Liz is the only character who doesn't quite convince. She speaks and acts like one of Jane Austen's soppier characters. I wasn't around in the early Sixties but I was under the impression that women were a little more independent by then.
Liz is a communist, mainly because of naive idealism, Le Carre seems to believe. At times he comes dangerously close to hamfistedly exposing her naivety to the real horrors of communism but he pulls back just in time and instead makes a more profound point.
George Smiley lurks throughout this book, though we spend little time with him. He is older here than in Le Carre's later trilogy but is otherwise fully formed.
This is an exceptional book, made so by Le Carre's instinctive feel for his subject and his palpable compassion which continually helps him avoid dogmatism. It's well worth reading.