Set against the backdrop of a divided, post-war Berlin, the novel tells the story of disillusioned British agent Alec Leamas. Leamas has failed in his mission as head of the West Berlin office of the British Secret Service, and after witnessing the murder of his last undercover operative, Riemick, as he tries to cross the border, he returns to Britain, and requests leave. However, the mysterious Control, the head of “The Circus” – Le Carré’s fictional nickname for MI6, based on its offices’ setting in London’s Cambridge Circus – offers him one last mission before retirement.
Leamas is to purportedly defect to East Germany in order to sow disinformation regarding enemy party member Hans-Dieter Mundt, the man responsible for Riemick’s murder. But, as with all espionage, nothing is what it seems, and, as the mission becomes complicated by Leamas’ cover story, namely his relationship with British Communist Party secretary Liz Gold, tension mounts as to whether he will complete it – or if he is really even meant to.
Amidst the ideological battleground of the Cold War, The Spy transcended the conventional espionage thriller, revealing the raw, gritty reality of field operations undertaken during the period of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and smuggled microdots. However, Le Carré was less interested in merely dramatising the various nuts and bolts of basic tradecraft – though he certainly did so in more detail than any other writer at the time – and was more concerned with questioning the very act of spying itself, emphasising the amoral techniques used in the invisible battle between East and West intelligence services.
How it manages to be so authentic
Le Carré’s background as a real-life intelligence worker could be felt in the authenticity of his work, especially The Spy, as well as in its decidedly pessimistic tone. Born David Cornwell, Le Carré served in British intelligence from the late 1940s, when, for his National Service, he was stationed in the Austrian city of Graz; with his expertise in German, he helped to interrogate defectors from East Germany.
He then returned to study at Oxford, where he became an informer for MI5 on Communist student groups, before joining the agency full time when he left. And it was when working in the dirty world of phone-tapping and break-ins that he began writing – under a pseudonym, as was a service requirement.
He transferred to MI6 in 1960 and became attached to the embassy in Bonn. The Spy was the last novel he published before he was, like many, compromised by double agent Kim Philby’s infamous 1963 betrayal of his fellow British secret service officers. Philby revealed their covers to the KGB, ending le Carré’s intelligence career for good.