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....”
Alec Leamas, a British spy, about fifty years old and a loner. Leamas, the former head of a network of undercover agents operating out of Berlin, is directed by British Intelligence to stage a fake defection and bring about the downfall of Hans-Dieter Mundt, a top East German agent. Tough-minded and cynical, Leamas has long avoided the moral and ethical questions raised by his work, adopting the unspoken philosophy of his profession that any action is justified if it achieves the desired results. Divorced and the father of children he rarely sees, Leamas is a case-hardened and emotionally isolated man until he begins a relationship with Liz Gold.
Liz Gold, a woman in her early twenties, naïve, idealistic, and a member of the Communist Party. Liz is working in a London library when she meets Leamas and becomes his lover. Tall, awkward, intelligent, and serious, Liz believes passionately in the future of world communism. She is warm and loving toward Leamas, and she remains ignorant of the true nature of his work until she becomes an unwitting participant in the espionage plot. Her journey to East Germany forces her to confront the realities of life in a communist state and ends with her death at the Berlin Wall.
Control, the head of British Intelligence. Known only by his code name, Control is a mixture of old school manners and ruthless tactics. Detached and enigmatic, he is the master manipulator who pulls the strings that hold the complex espionage operation together, often risking the lives of his agents to achieve the results he wants.
Hans-Dieter Mundt, the deputy director of operations for the East German intelligence community. A onetime Nazi, Mundt is a cruel, ruthless man who has brought about the death of several agents and is disliked and feared even by his own people. He is also, as Leamas at last learns, a highly placed double agent working for the British.
Fiedler, Mundt’s second-in-command and a committed Communist. Fiedler, too, is mistrusted by his own people and is infamous among British agents for his savage interrogation techniques. Fiedler, a Jew, has long hated the anti-Semitic Mundt and sees Leamas as the key to his superior’s downfall.
Miss Crail, the...
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