The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

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The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
Cover for the Victor Gollancz first edition
Cover for the Victor Gollancz first edition
AuthorJohn le Carré
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesGeorge Smiley
GenreSpy novel
PublishedSeptember 1963 Victor Gollancz & Pan
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages240 pages (Hardback edition) &
240 pages (Paperback edition)
ISBN0-575-00149-6 (Hardback edition) &
ISBN 0-330-20107-7 (Paperback edition)
Preceded byA Murder of Quality 
Followed byThe Looking-Glass War 

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a 1963 Cold War spy novel by the British author John le Carré. It depicts Alec Leamas, a British agent, being sent to East Germany as a faux defector to sow disinformation about a powerful East German intelligence officer. It serves as a sequel to le Carré's previous novels Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, which also featured the fictitious British intelligence organization, "The Circus", and its agents George Smiley and Peter Guillam.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold portrays Western espionage methods as morally inconsistent with Western democracy and values. The novel received critical acclaim at the time of its publication and became an international best-seller; it was selected as one of the All-Time 100 Novels by Time magazine.[1]

In 1965, Martin Ritt directed the cinematic adaptation, with Richard Burton as Leamas.


The Spy Who Came In from the Cold occurs during the heightened tensions that characterised the late 1950s and early 1960s Cold War, when a Warsaw PactNATO war sparked in Germany seemed likely. The story begins and concludes in Berlin, about a year after the completion of the Berlin Wall and around the time when double-agent Heinz Felfe was exposed and tried.[2]

In Call for the Dead, le Carré's debut novel, a key character is Hans-Dieter Mundt, an assassin of the Abteilung ("the Department"), the East German Secret Service, who is working under the pretext of being a member of a GDR trade delegation in London. When uncovered by agents George Smiley and Peter Guillam of the British intelligence service "the Circus" (which is led by "Control"), he escapes from England to East Germany before Smiley and Guillam can catch him. Two years later, at the time of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Mundt has risen from the field to the upper echelon of the Abteilung, because of his successful counter-intelligence operations against the spy networks of the British secret services. Characters and events from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold are reinvestigated in A Legacy of Spies, le Carré's 2017 novel centering on an aging Guillam.


The West Berlin office of the Circus is under the command of Station Head Alec Leamas, who served as an SOE operative during World War II and fought in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands and Norway.[3] It has just lost its last and best double agent, shot whilst defecting from East Berlin. With no operatives left, Leamas is recalled to London by Control, the Circus chief, who asks Leamas to stay "in the cold" for one last mission: to defect to the East Germans, and then to provide evidence to frame Abteilung head Hans-Dieter Mundt as a British double agent. Josef Fiedler (Mundt's deputy), who already suspects that Mundt is a double agent (according to Control), is targeted as a potentially useful adjunct for Leamas.

To bring Leamas to the East Germans' attention as a potential defector, the Circus sacks him, leaving him with only a small pension. He takes and loses a miserable job in a run-down library. There he meets Liz Gold, who is the secretary of her local cell of the Communist Party, and they become lovers. Before taking the "final plunge" into Control's scheme, Leamas makes Liz promise not to look for him, no matter what she hears. Then, after Leamas initiates the mission by assaulting a local grocer in order to have himself arrested, he gets Control to agree to leave Liz alone.

After his release from jail he is approached by an East German recruiter and taken abroad, first to the Netherlands, then to East Germany, en route meeting progressively higher echelons of the Abteilung, the East German intelligence service. During his debriefing, he drops casual hints about British payments to a double agent in the Abteilung. Meanwhile, retired British agent George Smiley, describing himself as an old friend of Leamas, appears at Liz's apartment to offer her financial help, while asking about her relationship with Leamas.

In East Germany Leamas meets Fiedler. The two men engage in extended discussions about past events, in which Leamas's pragmatism is contrasted with Fiedler's idealism. Leamas observes that the young, brilliant Fiedler is concerned about the righteousness of his motivation and the morality of his actions. Mundt, on the other hand, is a brutal, opportunistic mercenary, a former Nazi who joined the Communists after the war out of expediency, and who remains an anti-Semite.

The power struggle within the Abteilung is exposed when Mundt orders Fiedler and Leamas to be arrested and tortured. The leaders of the East German régime intervene after learning that Fiedler had applied for an arrest warrant for Mundt that same day. Both Fiedler and Mundt are released, then summoned to present their cases to a tribunal convened in camera. At the trial Leamas documents a series of secret bank account payments that Fiedler has matched to the movements of Mundt, while Fiedler presents other evidence implicating Mundt as a British agent.

Surprisingly, Liz, who had been invited to East Germany for a Communist Party information exchange, is called by Mundt's attorney as a witness and forced to testify at the tribunal. She admits that Smiley paid for her apartment lease after visiting her, and that she promised Leamas she would not look for him after he disappeared. She also admits that he had said goodbye to her the night before he assaulted the grocer. Realising that his cover is blown, Leamas offers to tell all about his mission from Control to frame Mundt in exchange for Liz's freedom. But when Fiedler questions how Mundt learned about Liz, Leamas finally realises the true nature of Control and Smiley's scheme. Then the tribunal halts the trial and arrests Fiedler.

Immediately after the trial Mundt covertly releases Leamas and Liz from jail and gives them a car to drive to Berlin. During the drive Leamas explains everything to Liz: Mundt is, in fact, a British double agent reporting to Smiley, who is not actually retired. The target of Leamas's mission was Fiedler, not Mundt, because Fiedler was close to exposing Mundt. Leamas and Liz's intimate relationship unwittingly provided Mundt (and Smiley) with the means of discrediting Leamas, and in turn, Fiedler. Liz realises to her horror that their actions have enabled the Circus to protect its asset, the despicable Mundt, at the expense of the thoughtful and idealistic Fiedler. Liz asks what will become of Fiedler; Leamas replies that he will most likely be shot.

Liz's love for Leamas overcomes her moral disgust, and she accompanies Leamas to a break in the wire fronting the Berlin Wall, through which they can climb the wall and escape to West Berlin. Leamas climbs to the top but, as he reaches down to help Liz, she is shot and killed by one of Mundt's operatives. She falls and, as Smiley calls out to Leamas from the other side of the wall, he hesitates. Then he climbs back down the East German side of the wall and is shot and killed too.


  • Alec Leamas: A British field agent in charge of East German espionage
  • Hans-Dieter Mundt: Leader of the East German Secret Service, the Abteilung
  • Josef Fiedler: East German spy, and Mundt's deputy
  • Liz Gold: English librarian and member of the Communist Party
  • Control: Head of The Circus
  • George Smiley: British spy, supposedly retired
  • Peter Guillam: British spy
  • Karl Riemeck: East German bureaucrat turned British spy

Cultural impact[edit]

At its publication during the Cold War, the moral presentation of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold rendered it a revolutionary espionage novel by showing the intelligence services of both the Eastern and Western nations as engaging in the same expedient amorality in the name of national security. Le Carré also presented his western spy as a morally burnt-out case.

The espionage world of Alec Leamas portrays love as a three-dimensional emotion that can have disastrous consequences for those involved. Good does not always vanquish evil in Leamas's world, a defeatist attitude that was criticised in The Times.[4][5]

Time magazine, while including The Spy Who Came In from the Cold in its top 100 novels list,[1] stated that the novel was "a sad, sympathetic portrait of a man who has lived by lies and subterfuge for so long, he's forgotten how to tell the truth."[6] The book also headed the Publishers Weekly's list of 15 top spy novels in 2006.[7]

Edward Brown noted that "Contrary to the well-established (and often justified) image of Communist regimes and their judicial systems, the trial scene at the heart of the book is no Show trial. To be sure, East German judges and lawyers take for granted that Communism is good and Capitalism is bad, and all their arguments are based on this premise. But still, the outcome is far from predetermined, and the judges are genuinely concerned to hear testimonies, weigh evidence and establish the truth. Le Carre's courtroom scene is as tense and dramatic as any set in a Western court".[8]


In 1965, Martin Ritt directed the film adaptation, with Richard Burton as Leamas, Oskar Werner as Fiedler, and Claire Bloom as Liz/Nan.

Paramount Television and The Ink Factory — who produced television adaptations of Le Carré's The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl — are developing a limited series based on The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, with Simon Beaufoy as the writer.[9] On 14 January 2017, AMC and the BBC joined with The Ink Factory for the series.[10]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Le Carré's book won a 1963 Gold Dagger award from the Crime Writers' Association for "Best Crime Novel". Two years later the US edition was awarded the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for "Best Mystery Novel". It was the first work to win the award for "Best Novel" from both mystery writing organizations. Screenwriters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, who adapted the book for the 1965 movie, received an Edgar the following year for "Best Motion Picture Screenplay" for an American movie.

In 2005, the fiftieth anniversary of the Dagger Awards, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was awarded the "Dagger of Daggers," a one-time award given to the Golden Dagger winner regarded as the stand-out among all fifty winners over the history of the Crime Writers' Association.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
  2. ^ Norman J. W. Goda. "CIA files relating to Heinz Felfe, SS officer and KGB spy" (PDF). Retrieved 26 April 2014.
  3. ^ The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, p. 65.
  4. ^ See, e.g., Barley, Tony. Taking Sides: The Fiction of John le Carré. Open University Press, 1986, p. 22.
  5. ^ The Times, 13 September 1968.
  6. ^ Grossman, Lev. All-TIME 100 Novels, TIME Magazine, 2005. Retrieved 29 October 2007.
  7. ^ "Publishers Weekly list". top 15 spy novels.
  8. ^ Edward G. Brown, "The Descendants of Perry Mason - Courtroom Scenes in 20th Century Literature" in Barbara Herbert (ed.) "Lawyers and Judges in Fiction - a Multidisciplinary Round Table of Jurists and Literary Critics"
  9. ^ Petski, Denise (20 July 2016). "John le Carrés 'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold' to Be Developed as Limited Series by Paramount TV & Ink Factory". Deadline. Retrieved 7 January 2017.
  10. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (14 January 2017). "AMC Teams with BBC for Limited Series Based on John le Carré Novel 'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold' – TCA". Deadline. Retrieved 14 January 2017.

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