As I mention today in my principal crime-fiction blog, The Rap Sheet, September 2013 marks 50 years since the first publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Released originally by UK publisher Victor Gollancz in 1963, it was actually the third Cold War espionage novel penned by real-life British intelligence agent David Cornwell under a pseudonym, John le Carré; both Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) had preceded it into print. However, Spy--with its “portrayal of Western espionage methods as morally inconsistent with Western democracy and values”--drew greater attention than either of those previous works, winning the 1965 Edgar Award for Best Novel, becoming an international best-seller, being condensed in the August 1964 edition of True magazine (see the cover image on the left), and really launching Cornwell/le Carré’s literary career. At the time of this novel’s publication, he was still with the Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6), but he quit no long after to become a full-time author.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold has since been named, by Time magazine, as one of the “100 best English-language novels published since 1923.” Publishers Weekly awarded it the top spot among its 15 favorite spy novels of all time. And Britain’s Independent newspaper chose it as one of the “10 best spy novels.” A film adaptation of this thriller, with Richard Burton starring as le Carré’s disgraced and hate-filled protagonist, Alec Leamas, was released in 1965.
As is the case for many of you, I suspect, it’s been a good long while since I last picked up and read Spy. But Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley insists that the tale has lost none of its resonance, even after half a century on bookshelves.
What is most satisfying about John le Carré’s first great success--first of many, as it turned out--is how well it holds up on this, its 50th anniversary. The Cold War and the Berlin Wall are long since gone, but the story le Carré constructed around the days when both threatened the stability and even the survival of civilization has lost none of its pertinence. The themes his splendid novel treats--the relationship between the individual and the state, the dangers of ideology, the brotherhood of enemies, the infinite human capacity for deceit and unfaithfulness, and the limited human capacity for loyalty and constancy--are every bit as much with us now as they were in 1963. The cast of characters and the antagonists are quite different, but the essential story is the same.An even better look back at this yarn’s complexities and place in the history of spy fiction can be found in the Double O Section blog.
During its five decades in print, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold has gone through numerous editions, a few of which I’ve gathered below. One of the popular images you find in looking through those dusty versions is Berlin, Germany’s 18th-century, neoclassical Brandenberg Gate, which once sat next to the Berlin Wall separating the west side of the city from the Communist eastern half. Other book fronts use barbed wire and, in one instance, what looks like a continuous string of code words to represent the difficult, distrustful period of the Cold War, the post-World War II era that pitted the Soviet Union against other Western powers.
Click on any of these images for an enlargement.
BONUS: On April 27, 1964, after the book release of Spy but before the movie was made, John le Carré appeared as a contestant on the TV panel game show To Tell the Truth. Watch that clip here.