Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958

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.

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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 he will disappear, and he makes her promise never to follow him. One day, he picks a fight with a local grocer, knocks him out, and is sent to prison.

Immediately out of prison, Leamas is followed by a Communist agent who lures him to Holland with the promise of money for divulging information about the British Secret Service. While he is cooperating with the enemy in Holland, a story breaks in the press that Leamas has defected to the East. Although this was not part of the plan and certainly puts him at much greater risk, Leamas is forced to flee to East Germany.

Once across the Iron Curtain, Leamas is taken to a remote country cottage and given a new interrogator, Fiedler, the notorious Mundt’s second-in-command. Leamas continues to play the game as rehearsed, the drunk ousted without pity by the British Secret Service, alternately verbally attacking his new accomplices and relating tidbits of classified information. As Leamas and Fiedler return to the cottage from one of their evening walks, they are savagely attacked by Mundt’s sentries. Leamas strangles one of the sentries. He awakens in prison, is brutalized by another guard in Mundt’s presence, and next awakens in a hospital ward, Fiedler at the foot of his bed.

Fiedler tells Leamas that he had long suspected Mundt of being a double agent and that while Mundt was putting them in prison, documentation implicating Mundt was already on its way to the Praesidium. Now Mundt will be standing trial and Leamas will be the leading witness for the prosecution. At the trial, Fiedler presents the case expertly and appears to be winning the day. Then Mundt’s lawyer is asked to present his defense, and he calls as his first witness Liz Gold. Under a false pretext, the Communist Party had brought Liz to East Germany. The sight of each other in the courtroom shocks both Liz and Leamas. Though she loves Leamas and senses the terrible danger he is in, Liz has no idea how her testimony will affect Leamas and takes the only course possible: She tells the truth. She admits that Leamas had told her in advance that he would be leaving; she relates how unknown benefactors had paid off Leamas’ debts after his disappearance and had bought the lease on her apartment. Mundt’s lawyer uses this information to turn the tables on Fiedler, who is then himself implicated as the double agent, a tool of the Western capitalists. At that moment, Leamas understands clearly what he was sent to do and whom he was sent to protect—Mundt.

With Mundt’s help, Leamas and Liz are “allowed” to escape from prison and to drive through East Germany toward Berlin and the Wall. As they speed through the East German countryside, they both attempt to come to some sort of personal reconciliation concerning their role as pawns in this deadly game. At the Wall, they have ninety seconds between checkpoints to reach freedom. Again, events do not transpire as planned; Liz slips and is shot dead. Leamas, at the top of the Wall, has a choice. He decides to “come in from the cold” and returns to Liz’s body under a renewed barrage of gunfire.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1003

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 is a contact for East German intelligence, and he eventually passes Leamas off to another contact, who supplies him with false identity papers, some money, and booze and sneaks him out of the country. In Holland, another agent, apparently Russian, intensively interrogates Leamas. Meanwhile, a notice appears in the British newspapers reporting his defection and implying that he has betrayed his country. Leamas is now fully committed as a defector, providing British intelligence to a foreign power for money and a berth in a neutral country.

Leamas is next transported to communist Berlin and then farther east to some sort of prison or interrogation center. There, he is questioned at some length by Fiedler, the deputy head of the Abteilung. During their sessions, the men not only discuss the secrets Leamas is supposedly selling to East Germany but also engage in philosophizing about why they do what they do. Fiedler is shocked that Leamas has no overarching belief in anything, thus echoing Liz’s similar earlier confusion. Fiedler also makes known his dislike and distrust of his superior, Mundt, and it becomes clear that he is looking for a way to implicate Mundt with British intelligence.

Mundt himself arrives, radically changing the situation. Fiedler disappears; Leamas is imprisoned, harshly interrogated, and charged with crimes against the state. He next appears in court, and during the trial it becomes apparent that Fiedler and Mundt are jockeying for power. At first Fiedler appears to be successful in using Leamas’s information against Mundt and to be winning the sympathy of the court. Mundt turns the tables on Fiedler, however, by producing Liz Gold as a witness and using her testimony against Fiedler.

It is revealed that, while Fiedler was interrogating Leamas in East Germany, Liz was offered a chance by her local Communist Party cell to visit East Germany as part of a cultural exchange program. Liz is thus in the country when Leamas is put on trial. It becomes clear that Mundt and perhaps some other unknown agency have colluded in setting up Fiedler. After the trial, Liz and Leamas appear to be in for long prison sentences, trapped behind the Iron Curtain. They are surprised, however, when an escape to the West unfolds, and they are whisked into a car and told to drive to a certain point along the Berlin Wall.

During the drive, Leamas explains to Liz what has transpired. It is now clear that British Intelligence is involved in the events that have transpired: Mundt is actually a double agent working for the British, and the Circus has grown concerned that Fiedler is getting too close to discovering the truth about his boss. Mundt’s exposure would compromise whatever is left of the British spy network in the East. The real purpose of Leamas’s mission, kept a secret from Leamas himself, was to provide Mundt with a means of discrediting Fiedler, thereby eliminating the threat to him and preserving an extremely valuable source of intelligence.

The fleeing couple is given precise instructions about how to scale the wall without detection by avoiding the searchlight and the guards. Leamas is to go first and then pull Liz after him. During the escape, however, everything goes wrong: It appears as though Liz is to be sacrificed, and only Leamas will be allowed to escape. Unable or unwilling to flee alone, Leamas crosses back onto the East German side of the wall, where he too is killed.

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