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 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...
(The entire section is 1,961 words.)