The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

fishThose in the business—the literature business—often get excited over a complex and challenging narrative structure which manipulates voice and character and time in often confusing ways. There are excellent examples from Joyce to Nabokov to Faulkner, so many that there was a bit of a backlash against the overly manipulated novel and various forms of minimalism have become popular (have you read Peter Markus: Good, BrotherThe Singing Fish; Bob, or Man on Boat?).

But there are categories of fiction that rely on complexity, details, and very twisty plot structures; yet, those in the realm of literature often miss out on these novels because the stories are less concerned with understanding man’s place in the world than with telling a good and possibly exciting story that will leave the reader gasping for more. Most novels in this category tend to be filed under Genre Fiction in the bookstore: some of it is pretty bad, but a great deal of it is fascinating reading.

Mystery stories, or the various sub-genres like police procedurals, are great because they function both as a fictional narrative and also as a challenging puzzle which the reader is invited to solve (of course, the good ones seldom are obvious and the bad ones are the mystery equivalent of the EZ-Crossword).

Another genre in this area is the suspense novel and a very important sub-genre here is the Spy story. Back in the 1950s we were all reading the Ian Fleming novels and James Bond, who later became an icon in the movies, was a favorite spy. In the 1960s another British espionage agent started writing these Spy novels and ignited a new career as an author with his third novel, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. James Bond and George Smiley were very different but they represented, along with others like the nameless agent in Len Deighton’s novels, the face of international espionage that could thrill any Kansas farmer or Hackensack auto mechanic.

Funny thing was, and probably because I was off to the big university to study serious literature for several years, I never read all these wonderful stories. Wait: I lied: one year I read all the Robert Ludlum novels that had been published. One thing I find fascinating about some of this genre fiction, whether it’s Ludlum’s Bourne series or Parker’s Spenser series, is that the characters and situations are more important and often outlive the author. I remember, however, that there was rumored to be a few posthumous Travis McGee novels squirreled away for future publication but when John  D. MacDonald died, there was no more Travis McGee.

spyOne advantage of getting older and sitting outside on the lanai with a good reading light and a big magnifying glass is that you have time for some of those examples of Genre Fiction, both good and bad. So I started with John Le Carré (mostly because his books are available for the iPad) and read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Pretty powerful stuff; maybe a little dated but isn’t Charles Dickens a little dated too? What I found fascinating was the twists in the narrative: you might compare this Le Carré novel with Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds … they both require unfailing attention and swift recognition of when the narrative pops into a new level or makes a sharp turn to go around what you thought was going to happen and take a new, unexpected route. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold may not be as literate as Flann O’Brien but it is quite well written and holds the reader’s interest right up to the last line.

Although there are clues along the way, the puzzle in the Le Carré novel is to know what is the truth: what is the “real” narrative. Did the British spy turn and is he telling secrets to the enemy? Is the enemy reading the sub-text of those secrets and discovering a problem in their own ranks? Is the British agency setting up this fiction to eliminate a rival? Is the rival a double-agent? There are several additional layers of fiction in the debriefing and trial of these agents and until the last chapter the situation could be resolved in several ways.

The author is always in control and I intend to try a few more of his espionage novels. Maybe I’ll even scout around for other popular examples of cold war espionage … I remember a movie with George Segal: what was that spy’s name?


I found this website that offers a handy glossary to many of the terms and idioms used by the spy-guys back in the cold war days. Check it out : Glossary.

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