Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee ..."

One of the benefits of "must-read" lists is that someone assigns a certain level of importance to a book that you might have had the wrong impression about. For me, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré was a book that I never would have picked up. I find the Cold War dreary and imagined spy novels to be flashy and shallow. But knowing that this book was on a "must-read" list, I decided to take a chance and try it. I think this is a chance that many more readers should take.

Alec Leamas is the head of the British spy operation in West Germany at the start of the Cold War. However, his agents have all been targeted and he is awaiting the return from East Germany of his last man-- a government mole. The man almost makes it past the checkpoint but at the last moment is gunned down from the East German side. Leamas has to flee back to England and discuss his future with Control, the head of the intelligence organization. As Alec isn't ready to retire, they decide to put a risky plan into motion -- one that if successful will bring down the head of East German intelligence.

This is a shorter novel but, as you can guess, it is fast-paced. However, it didn't fit the stereotype of the spy novel. There was sex but it was barely mentioned. There was torture but we didn't have to read every gruesome detail. There was a good amount of drinking but surprisingly no foul language. This was a much more intelligent but also suspenseful tale. I read the book in almost a single sitting because it was so compelling.

I picked up The Spy Who Came In From the Cold for the Take a Chance Challenge. It was for the "Random Bestseller" task --
Go to Random.org and, using the True Random Number Generator, enter the number 1950 for the min. and 2008 for the max. and then hit generate. Then go to this site and find the year that Random.org generated for you and click on it. Then find the bestseller list for the week that would contain your birthday for that year. Choose one of the bestsellers from the list that comes up, read it and write about it.
My year was 1964, in the month of April. This book had been on the list for 14 weeks at this point and ended up being a bestseller for over a year. This one was definitely worth the chance!

This book is also on the 1000 Books to Read Before You Die list which qualifies it for the 1% Well-Read Challenge. It replaced an existing book on my challenge list but I'm glad to give up the spot. It's one that I would have put off for a long time, possibly forever. I believe there is at least one other John le Carré novel on the list and I would definitely consider reading it. The quality of his writing is very high. It's also nice to diversify a bit and not just read about Regency and Victorian England!

Learning something new every day,

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  1. Most of le Carré's material is pretty good. Classics usually become classics because they are worth reading, not just because they are popular at the time.

  2. Agreed. Just think of the number of books that you never hear about again after a few years even though they are the talk of the town for a while. That must be the most satisfying part of being a writer -- seeing your book positively reviewed many years later by a new audience.

  3. I wouldn't have read this normally either but I happened across it and really enjoyed it. As you say, it is an intelligent read.

  4. I'm glad this worked out for you!! I've never read it but you've made me want to give it a whirl (my reservations are pretty much what yours were!)

  5. Great random choice and liked your review. Will have to read Le Carre one of these days.