Coming in from the heat with a classic spy novel

spy.jpgThough I’ve been reading like a dervish, assuming they read, it’s been so beautiful outside I haven’t trapped myself at my computer to post about them. We’re in the middle of a heat spell, so I thought I’d stay in the air conditioning and play catch-up.

In the month-plus since I’ve posted, I have good and bad, new and classic, thrillers and cozies. Now it’s time to get moving on the blogging.

This year’s Classics Challenge includes a category for which, I think, a challenge like this was made: A book by an author you’ve not read before. In my Sisyphean task to eliminate books from my shelves and the boxes in the basement, I chose to read John LeCarre, whose novel “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” has been collecting dust since I shoved it in a sack on Paper Bag Day at a local church’s used book sale lo these many years ago.

I’ve tried to read this book before, but never got past the first chapter. It starts, as all good thrillers should, in the middle of an exciting event — a man is expected to defect from the Eastern Bloc to the West and people on both sides of the border are waiting for it to happen. It’s fairly straightforward and tense, but I always felt daunted by what was going on.

See, I am fascinated by spies. It’s not the work itself that intrigues me (even here, LeCarre makes the actual spying seem banal) but the motivations. And the ways spies must be always thinking and planning and plotting, for good spies are in it for the long game.

I should say that despite my fascination with spy stories, especially those set during the Cold War, I hardly ever read them and rarely watch spy movies. They have always intimidated me and I always feel about two steps behind. I don’t always catch names of characters so when someone late in the book or movie says something like “There’s only one person who knew that: Smith!” I have to figure out who the hell Smith is before I can move on. That’s either an admission of lazy reading or my stupidity, maybe both.

So, when I started the book this time, I was wide awake and gave myself a two-chapter minimum. I’m so glad I did. I couldn’t put it down after that.

LeCarre, who wrote under a pen name because he worked for British intelligence at the time the novel was published, is clear, precise, thrilling and demanded my attention. I followed everything, mostly.

The plot involves a fake defection—from West to East—to spread fake news about a previous defector, again from West to East. I don’t want to say too much more about it because this is a fascinating book that shouldn’t be ruined by a hack like me.

If you’re also anal like me, you’ll want to read LeCarre’s debut novel, “Call for the Dead,” which introduces the players. I didn’t but only because I thought “Cold” was LeCarre’s first novel.

What I love so much about the book is that the main character, Alec Leamas, feels about his job the same way so many of us do. He has a punch-in mentality and sees that the work he does is in direct conflict with the ideals of the country for which he does it. That’s gotta play with your head in a bad way.

“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” is one of Time Magazine’s 100 All-Time Best Novels (of which I’ve read 33 now) and it’s easy to see why. That LeCarre is still writing and still thrilling (with many of the same characters) more than 60 years after this novel was first published, is a testament to the long game of a great writer.

Next category: A 19th-Century Classic. I read “Gone With the Wind” earlier this year, now it’s time to read about the Civil War’s winners in Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.”


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