I originally added this to my to-read list, way back in 2016, because of one of my GoodReads friends gave it 5 stars and a great review. Technically this is part of a series, but it can be read on its own.
I haven’t read anything else in this genre (spy thrillers, that is), but when I was making my list for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge, I picked this one for the category of 20th Century Classic (it was written in 1963). It was a good choice. (Now I know where the name of a character in the Southern Reach trilogy came from!)
What happens: SIS officer and head of the Berlin station Alec Leamas loses the final link in his chain of informants when his last man, Karl Riemeck, is shot trying to cross the Berlin Wall. He wants to quit, but then he offered an assignment to take out Hans-Dieter Mundt, the agent of East German Intelligence responsible for the death of Leamas’s agents. But the mission is not what it seems.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but basically this is a story about the ruthlessness and cynicism of the security state. The”Fifty Years Later” introduction by the author, written fifty years after the original publication (that is, 2003) is great. If you are reading this review on GoodReads, you can see the quote I liked under my review; if not, here it is:
“The novel’s merit, then—or its offence, depending where you stood—was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old question that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: How far can we go in the rightful defence of our Western values without abandoning them along the way? My fictional chief of the British Service—I called him Control—had no doubt of the answer: ‘I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?’ Today, the same man, with better teeth and hair and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the twenty-first century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semi-automatic weapons, and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one’s perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them. Or, as a loyal servant of his corporation, assuring us that smoking is harmless to the health of the Third World, and great banks are there to serve the public. What have I learned over the last fifty years? Come to think of it, not much. Just that the morals of the secret world are very like our own.”