The Spy Who Came in From the Cold


John Le Carré

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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Le Carré

David Cornwell was born into an unhappy home. His mother abandoned the family when he was five, and his father associated with organized criminals and was jailed for insurance fraud. After being educated in England and Switzerland, Cornwell joined the M15, the British domestic security service. In this job, he tried to learn about Soviet connections to far left-wing groups in England. In 1960, he joined the M16, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, operating out of the British embassy in Bonn, West Germany and Hamburg. Bored with this work and unhappy in his marriage, Cornwell began writing, and published under the name John Le Carré. His first two books, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality were mystery novels, although both featured characters like Hans-Dietrich Mundt and George Smiley who would reappear in his later spy fiction. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was his first espionage novel. It was approved for publication by the M16, after they carefully vetted it for classified information and found none. The novel was a colossal success, and Cornwell went on to quit the M16 to work full-time as a novelist. Many of his books have been turned into acclaimed movies and television shows. In 2017, Le Carré will publish a new book that focuses on the character Peter Guillam, a character from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It will be the ninth book in the “George Smiley” series.
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Historical Context of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold takes place in London and Berlin in the early 1960s, at the peak of Cold War tensions. During the Second World War (1939-1945), the Western Allies, including Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union, fought against Nazi Germany and its Fascist allies. After the war, with the Nazis defeated, Western powers saw the Soviet Union as their primary rival. Many feared that another world war would break out between the nations allied with the Communist Soviet Union, including the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the Capitalist, Liberal-Democratic Western nations countries like Great Britain and the United States, which allied with the Western German Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Berlin was the frontline between the two opposing systems. The city was located in the GDR, but its western half was controlled by Britain, France, and the United States, and considered a part of the FRG. In August of 1961, the GDR began to block access between East and West Berlin. Very quickly, the Berlin Wall became a virtually impenetrable barrier blocking East Germans from fleeing the more limited economic opportunities and political repression of the Communist GDR.

Other Books Related to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Aside from the seven (soon to be eight) other novels Le Carré wrote about George Smiley and other members of the Circus, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was part of an outpouring of Cold War espionage novels. The novel was immediately compared by critics to the Ian Fleming’s hugely popular James Bond series. Many readers believed that Le Carré’s work showed a chillingly realistic depiction of life in the secret services, unlike the glamorous fantasy presented in the Bond books. Graham Greene, who called The Spy Who Came in from the Cold the “best spy story” he had read, also wrote novels about spies, including Our Man in Havana. Greene also wrote the screenplay for The Third Man, a film whose grim depiction of Berlin immediately after World War Two has a great deal in common with the Berlin Le Carré depicts in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Finally, Alec Leamas mentions having read a book by Arthur Koestler, in which an old revolutionary faces torture. This is almost certainly Darkness at Noon, a book which revealed to many the barbaric abuses of power occurring in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Key Facts about The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
  • Full Title: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
  • When Written: 1961
  • Where Written: Bonn, Germany
  • When Published: 1963
  • Literary Period: Cold War fiction
  • Genre: Spy fiction
  • Setting: West Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany; London, England; The Hague, Amsterdam; East Berlin, German Democratic Republic (GDR)
  • Climax: Karden calls Liz as a witness at the Tribunal on Mundt’s spying.
  • Antagonist: Hans-Dieter Mundt
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Adaptations. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was adapted into an award-winning film in 1965. As of 2017, the novel is being adapted into a television series by the BBC.

Mysterious inspiration. The character of Alec Leamas is based on a man Cornwell saw once in a bar in London’s airport. The man pulled a handful of coins from different countries out of his raincoat pocket, ordered a large scotch with “no bloody ice,” drank it in two gulps and shuffled away.