At the outset of the novel, Alec Leamas is waiting in West Berlin at the Wall for Karl Riemeck to come across. Riemeck is the only remaining spy in a network Leamas has been running successfully for some time in the East German state. Although everything has fallen apart since the promotion of Hans-Dieter Mundt to Deputy Director of Operations for the East German Secret Service, Leamas still has hope that his man will be able to reach the West. The border checks seem to be going smoothly until, at the last moment, the alarm is sounded and Riemeck is shot—several feet short of freedom.
Back in England, Leamas must face up to his failure by reporting personally to Control. Certain that his age, fifty, and the ignominious collapse of an intelligence network that at one time was the glory of the British Secret Service will spell disaster for his career in the eyes of his superiors, Leamas reviews his life. He has lived the inevitable life of an intelligence agent—a loner, especially since his divorce from his wife. Lately, though, Leamas has also questioned his motives: Was he losing his nerves of steel, the hardness necessary for a person in his profession? An incident while he was racing down the autobahn, when a sudden attack of fear for the lives of a man and his children in a car struck him, illustrates his newfound moral uncertainty.
Rather than ask Leamas to resign, though, Control has another job for him, one last service that Leamas can perform for the Circus before he is allowed to resolve his emotional conflicts and “come in from the cold.” Leamas can help protect their last double agent in East Germany, an agent who is so highly placed and so valuable that his identity will not be revealed even to Leamas.
Only a small group at the Circus knows about this last assignment. Leamas is transferred to a desk job. Always given to drink, he goes into a decline, eventually embezzles some funds, and leaves. Soon, he must start drawing welfare benefits, and his counselor forces him to take a job at a small library. His fellow assistant at the Bayswater Library for Psychic Research is Liz Gold, a Marxist and a Branch Secretary in the London District of the Communist Party, who takes pity on Leamas and starts inviting him to her flat for dinner. Eventually, they become lovers. Lcamas warns Liz that one day...
(The entire section is 958 words.)