John le Carré is a rarity among writers of spy fiction. In most novels in this popular genre, character is sacrificed to plot, but le Carré combines the pleasures of the well-plotted thriller with the deeper satisfactions of serious fiction—particularly the development of complex, fully realized characters.
Leamas has reached a critical stage when he must question his entire way of life as a secret agent. Related in the third person, revelations of Leamas’ personality are interspersed in the narrative. His failed marriage, the grief and moral dilemma caused by the loss of his many agents, his alternate bouts of hate and compassion for the agents of the enemy, his attraction to Liz, all play a significant part in the development of the plot. Liz Gold, for her part, must reconcile her dedication to the Party, which she joined out of compassion for the masses, with the realities of a bureaucratic system that will annihilate her love.
Even the characters that are not developed are given motivation for their action. Of one of Leamas’s interrogators, the author says: “There was something very orthodox about him which Leamas liked. It was the orthodoxy of strength, of confidence. If Peters lied there would be a reason. The lie would be a calculated, necessary lie....”
The author also risks pedantry at times by inserting philosophy in the dialogues of the characters:“I don’t give a damn whether you believe me or not,” Leamas rejoined hotly. Fiedler smiled. “I am glad. That is your virtue,” he said, “that is your great virtue. It is the virtue of indifference. A little resentment here, a little pride there, but that is nothing: the distortions of a tape recorder. You are objective....”