(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Alec Leamas is a burned-out British espionage officer who has been in charge of running spies in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). When his last agent, Karl Riemeck, is shot down in front of him at a border crossing, it signals the end of his network: The group of agents he has been running has been exposed by the head of the Abteilung (the East German counterespionage agency), and Leamas is sent back to England for reassignment.

The shock of Riemeck’s death and the demise of Leamas’s network appear to indicate the close of his career as a field officer, so Leamas believes that he will finally be allowed to abandon field work (“be brought in from the cold,” in the parlance of the British Secret Intelligence Service). Leamas returns to the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, nicknamed the Circus, because its headquarters is located in Cambridge Circus, London. The head of the Circus, a man known only as Control, informs Leamas that, if he is not ready for a desk job, there is another field position that may be open to him. With the collaboration of Control and the retired spymaster George Smiley, Leamas participates in a counterespionage plan to destroy the East German spies who broke apart the British network.

The plan begins when Leamas sets up an elaborate charade in which he pretends to be disgruntled with the Circus. Amid bitter recriminations, he quits his desk job, claiming that it represented an undeserved demotion. Then, his life apparently spirals out of control. He circulates through a series of jobs, drinks too much, and lives a rough lifestyle. Finally, he secures a job in the Bayswater Library for Psychic Research, where he does menial work for little cash under the eye of the librarian Miss Crail, who seems to spend much of her day complaining about Leamas to her mother over the phone.

The one bright spot in Leamas’s new existence is that he meets a young fellow worker, Liz Gold, who befriends him; the two become lovers. Although he genuinely begins to have feelings for Liz, Leamas continues to play the dissolute former spy, alcoholic and angry. He becomes violent with his local grocer, is arrested, and is sentenced to jail.

The payoff for this deception occurs upon Leamas’s release from prison, when he is befriended by an odd little man named Bill Ashe. Ashe buys him food and drinks and gives him some cash, even putting Leamas up in his apartment for a few days. Ashe...

(The entire section is 1003 words.)