I read this one before, several years ago, but apparently I blanked on it because I had minimal recollection of it when I was reading it this time around.
What prompted me to read this again was that I tried and failed to watch “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” on Netflix. Then I also heard an episode of Intelligence Squared, which is a podcast that is actual Oxford-style debates, about who was the better spy novelist, John Le Carre or Ian Fleming. (John Le Carre, c’mon.)
This is such a great book. And SO SAD.
Alec Leamas is a the head of the British spy organization in Berlin during the height of the Cold War. The book starts with him waiting for a spy of his to make it across the border into West Germany. He doesn’t make it and that basically collapses the entire British spy operation in Berlin.
He goes home and is farmed out to office duty, turns into a total drunk, gets fired from the agency and works a bunch of crappy jobs, and finally beats up a local grocer, doing three months in jail.
When he gets out, he’s recruited by the Communists to betray his people for cash and potential resettlement, but while he’s in Holland giving them information, his own government catches on and starts looking for him, so they move him behind the curtain to East Germany.
While there he runs across a fearsome interrogator and also the head German spy, the man ultimately responsible for the destruction of his entire spy operation.
Or actually, maybe none of that is what happened.
Because it’s John Le Carre and there’s always another level. You think you got to the bottom? NOPE.
Maybe he was recruited by his own intelligence service to go deep undercover and feed bad information to the communists to take down the German spy.
Or maybe he was recruited by his own intelligence service to give accurate information to the communists to take down the German spy.
Or maybe he was giving information that was partially true and partially false, designed to save the German spy, who is actually working for the British after all.
It’s always so much fun to read Le Carre because it’s so clever, and so subtle. Will Leamas live to tell the tale? What was really happening?
IMDB tells me there was a movie of this in 1965 starring Richard Burton, and that there’s a miniseries coming this year starring Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger from Game of Thrones!) so that will be well worth watching.