Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was John le Carré’s third novel and the one which established his reputation. During a period when detective fiction and the novel of intrigue were enjoying renewed popularity, le Carré brought to this form true artistry in the tradition of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. He is a master literary craftsman who excels both in characterization and in context. Leamas and Liz are thoroughly sympathetic figures who are ultimately betrayed by the organizations to which they have given their loyalty. They make the story work, and through them, the plot is carefully elaborated, carried forward not only by the suspense attending Leamas’ last mission but also by the moral tension building within a man troubled by the ethical ambiguities of his ruthless vocation. Le Carré knows the world of the secret agent, and his mixture of the mundane and the breathtaking is so beautifully balanced that the reader easily accepts the reality of the story.

Le Carré transcends the chase and escape motif of the usual spy novel and reaches into the depths of the human condition as shaped by the Cold War. Leamas and Liz are symbols of the times, caught up in the moral confusions that touch everyone in the modern, ideological age. In fact, le Carré has described the Cold War as a debilitating sickness, weakening the ethical foundations of Western civilization. “We are in the process of doing things in defense of our society,” he...

(The entire section is 463 words.)