A good spy novel ought to have double agents, sacrificial women, and neat fight scenes. John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold has these elements. It’s a really good read: well paced, brilliantly plotted, and smooth in the necessary transitions in narrative focalization that allow the reader access to pieces of information, but not quite enough (for me at least) to piece together the mystery before le Carre is ready to have it all out.
The novel grapples with questions of whether individual lives are worth sacrificing for the sake of the larger good, and then explodes this (somewhat banal) moral question by tackling whether there is such a thing as a “larger good” at all. These questions might sound overwrought, but the novel does a remarkable job of weaving these ideas into character and plot in such a way as to not read as clunky or melodramatic (with the one notable exception of Leamas’s and Liz’s conversation in the car).
A great cold war novel in its descriptions of tension along the borders and in its attention to the similarities between the two powers in both ideology and method. A great spy novel for its emphasis on plot, but with a suitable level of character development that allows the conclusion to by poignant and affecting.