CHENNAI: During the Cold War years, when western countries lived under the constant shadow of war, the importance of espionage operations could not be overstated. The intrigues involved as each intelligence agency attempted to outfox its rival, and perhaps the very idea that groups of highly trained professionals were at it, invoked the interest of many writers too. Upshot was that spy fiction became a popular genre in itself. Spy fiction writers had the tough task of fabricating adequately complicated plots with twists and turns and reversals galore.
The thing working for them was the fact that the reader was willing to suspend disbelief more than he or she would for novels of another category. In spy fiction, mere plausibility could justify a given plot twist, for spies were anyway assumed to be operating in highly convoluted scenarios. Writers, thus, had some leeway, and many a times, if they had written themselves into a corner, a double agent or triple agent could be conveniently introduced to provide the necessary resolution.
The best exponent of the Cold War spy novel is the British author named John le Carré. His third novel The Spy who came in from the Cold is in fact regarded as the best spy novel ever. Like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won the Booker of Bookers, le Carré’s Spy won the 2005 CWA Dagger of Daggers, marking it as the best crime novel of the previous fifty years.
Published in 1963, after the consolidation of the Berlin wall was complete, The Spy upped the ante for spy novels, by pushing for realism against the pulp-like thrills of the James Bond novels. Alec Leamas, the British spy in the novel, doesn’t seduce any women for fun, doesn’t do any high-flying stunts, doesn’t even shake or stir his martini. Always on edge, always precariously close to failure in the high stakes game he finds himself in, Leamas’ character seems loaned from high-quality detective fiction from an earlier time, although it can be seen that the deception he builds far exceed those of mere crime-solvers.
Oddly though, the novel starts with Leamas’ career’s defining failure. The last agent in his network is killed in an attempt to cross over from the eastern side of the wall to the west.In response, Leamas’ superiors craft a scheme: Leamas is shelved, and they wait till the other side establishes contact with the beleaguered spy. The best part of the novel was the authenticity of this shelving.
Leamas doesn’t just act like a wrecked spy on a desk job, hitting the bottle too hard — he is drinking too much, he does hate the desk job, and he is at the edge of cynicism because of decades of work in espionage. The enemies, of course, can’t see through a lie that is so close to the truth. Contact with Leamas is established, and he begins his performance as the defector. The novel only becomes more delightfully complex from here.
(The writer will publish his first novel Neon Noon in July 2016)