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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: Review

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, written by John le Carré and published in 1963, is a literary thriller addressing the amorality of spying and the cynicism of both sides in the Cold War. It has won multiple awards and critics regularly vote it one of the best spy thrillers of all time.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: Title

The title is a play on ‘cold’ and has several related meanings. In the novel, ‘coming in from the cold’ means retiring as a field agent. ‘Cold’ also references the Cold War, the political military and espionage confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union between the 1950s and the 1990s. The title also implies that the nature of espionage work is cold and inhumane, which is the premise of the novel.

Implying the premise of the novel in the title is a classic title archetype – see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel for more explanation.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: Logline

At the height of the Cold War, a burnt-out British spy is asked to pretend to defect in order to frame an enemy spymaster, but he falls in love with a naïve Communist and begins to suspect he is a pawn in a cynical double-cross.

(For more on loglines, see The Killogator Logline Formula)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: Plot Summary

Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.

Checkpoint Charlie, from the film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

It’s the early 1960s. Alec Leamas runs the Circus (British intelligence) in West Berlin. The Abteilung (East German intelligence) has captured all his agents and so he returns to London in disgrace.

Control, the head of the Circus, decides to trick the Abteilung into thinking their head, Mundt, is a British double agent and so eliminate a dangerous enemy. He asks Leamas to fake his defection to East Germany as part of the plot.

The Circus fires Leamas. He drinks heavily and causes trouble to build his cover as a disillusioned ex-spy. Then he gets a job at a library and meets Liz Gold, who is a Communist. They become lovers, and this leads to Leamas coming to the attention of the East Germans. They contact him and he agrees to defect to them.

East Germany

In East Germany, Leamas meets Fiedler, Mundt’s deputy, who interrogates him. Leamas hints at British payments to a double agent in the Abteilung. Fiedler, who is an idealist, suspects Mundt’s loyalties, as Mundt is an ex-Nazi who was once in British hands. During that time, the Circus could have blackmailed him into becoming a double agent.

In England, George Smiley, Control’s deputy, offers Liz money, claiming Leamas asked him to help her.

Mundt arrests Fiedler and Leamas, but his superiors in the Abteilung intervene. They arrange a tribunal to discover who’s really the double agent – Fiedler or Mundt.

At the trial, Leamas shows how British payments match Mundt’s movements and supplies other circumstantial evidence of his guilt. However, Mundt has a surprise witness…

The [blackout]witness is Liz Gold. She tells the court how George Smiley gave her money and provides other hints that Mundt is the victim of a British plot. In return for Liz’s freedom, Leamas admits the truth, and the Abteilung arrest Fiedler.[/blackout]

The Wall

Mundt [blackout]helps Leamas and Liz escape, telling them to drive to Berlin where his agent will help them get over the Wall.[/blackout]

Leamas realises that [blackout]Mundt really is a double agent for the British. The point of the operation was to eliminate Fiedler before he exposed Mundt[/blackout]. Liz is [blackout]horrified by the ruthless cynicism of the British action.[/blackout]

Mundt [blackout]assures Leamas that he’s bribed the border guards. Reassured, Liz and Leamas climb the Berlin Wall trying to return to the West. However, Mundt has lied, and the spotlights turn on them and the guards shoot Liz. Leamas could escape, but he climbs back down to be with Liz and the guards kill him.[/blackout]

(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: Analysis


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold has a Mission plot (see Spy Novel Plots).

The ‘Mission’ Plot

The Protagonist:

  1. Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
  2. Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
  3. Makes a plan to complete the mission.
  4. Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
  5. Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance subplot with one of the Allies).
  6. Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they encounter them.
  7. Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
  8. Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes)
  9. Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.

Richard Burton in the film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold


When The Spy Who Came in from the Cold came out, reviewers felt it was a response to the unrealism and moral certainty of popular spy heroes like James Bond. Le Carré’s depiction of espionage as an amoral world where no one considers their actions as good and evil, just as effective or ineffective, was revolutionary and controversial.

At the time, Le Carré was serving in MI6, which is why he published his novels under a pseudonym (his real name was David Cornwell). So readers assumed the novel was authentic, unlike the over-the-top “sex and sadism” of James Bond.

In fact, MI6 had the right to vet The Spy Who Came in from the Cold before Le Carré could publish it. Le Carré claimed the only reason MI6 approved his novel was because it was so unrealistic they assumed no-one would take it seriously. They later regretted this because the unethical behaviour of the British in the novel made future recruitment harder.

Subsequently, Le Carré claimed that his most realistic book was The Looking Glass War, a downbeat work featuring a dreary, penny-pinching intelligence service, dreaming of its Second World War glory years. The Looking Glass War was one of his least popular novels – there’s realism and then there’s realism.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: Alternative Cover

I loved how this cover looked when I inverted the black and white. The barbed wire is, of course, reminiscent of the Cold War and the Berlin wall.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Alternative Cover

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: My Verdict

One of the great classics of spy literature. John le Carré is a giant literary figure. For most writers, this would be their masterpiece, but for le Carré it’s just one superb work amongst many. Smiley’s People, The Little Drummer Girl and The Constant Gardener, for example, are great novels too, and many people regard Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as John le Carré’s best work.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: The Movie

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Film 3

The movie of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold stars Richard Burton as Leamas and Claire Bloom as Liz (who they renamed Nan to avoid confusion with Burton’s wife, Liz Taylor). Martin Ritt directed it from a screenplay by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, and won the 1967 BAFTA Award for Best British Film.

The movie version is faithful to the original, making very few changes. Apart from the compression inevitable in any movie, the only major difference is that in the novel both Liz and Fiedler are Jewish and Mundt is an antisemitic ex-Nazi, whilst in the film there are fewer references to religion.

The film also made an interesting stylistic choice by being filmed in black and white, to emphasise the bleakness of le Carré’s world.

Richard Burton makes an excellent Leamas, and was nominated for the Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his role.

Want to Read or Watch it?

The book is available on Amazon US here and Amazon UK here.

The movie is available on Amazon US here and Amazon UK here.

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