“What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs?” the protagonist in John le Carré’s 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold barks at his sometime lover Liz as they drive toward the Berlin Wall and what they hope will be safety. “They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”
Le Carré’s man Alec Leamas certainly knew whereof he spoke. A dyspeptic, penniless drunk, not to mention an over-the-hill divorcee with estranged children but no friends, Leamas had been a miserable MI6 station chief in Berlin. He thought ill of his superiors, failed to save his embattled network of agents and long ago began to doubt the rightness of his own side in the Cold War. As for the treachery—well, Leamas knew all about that, too.
He was tasked with playing the role of a disgruntled ex-spy ready to sell out his country to East Germany. And while he would certainly qualify as disgruntled, he wasn’t exactly ex. The entire operation that now has him and his lover Liz hurtling through the night on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain has been revealed as an elaborate ruse, one designed to protect MI6’s highest-ranking mole in East German intelligence.