The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
John Le Carre
1963

Le Carre’s classic isn’t on this list because it’s been called the best spy novel of all time. It’s called that for the reasons it’s on this list, and for the reasons that Le Carre stands head and shoulders above the genre he’s known for.

Set amid the tense Cold War atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s – the atmosphere that gave us the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis – the book makes a significant break with other spy novels before and after, emphasizing above all else the amorality of not only intelligence services but of politics in general, regardless of ‘sides’, regardless of expressed motivations, regardless of the myths that ground us or the worlds we chase. It’s the banality of evil, a glimpse into how states and structures of power corrupt not through the manipulations or machinations of evil geniuses or cruel men, but through everyday and seemingly-minor compromises of integrity. It’s the anti-James-Bond.

This is Le Carre’s predominant theme, the line that runs through his work, and he handles it brilliantly. What is realpolitik really all about? How do regular people, with stories and motivations like any of us, become the agents of the heartless state? How do everyday choices alter the course of our lives, and the lives of others. And how do institutions of power – corporate power, political power, military power – emerge from and reproduce themselves in large part by the trivial activities of human beings – fallible and complex, but also polite, even progressive, human beings? Le Carre does the spy novel, but that’s not the point.  The point is to explore complex questions of motivation and human frailty, of how our lives shape power and power shapes our lives. And to do it by way of a damn fine yarn.

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