Writing about Identity Crisis last week, I complained that I often found comics attempts at doing hard-edged, “this is the real world, we can’t play fair” stories as naive as the idealism they scoff at. That got me thinking about an old post of mine on my own blog, about John Le Carré’s Cold War classic, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
When I started reading Le Carré’s novels more than a decade ago (as he wrote a lot and I read a lot of other things, I only recently finished) I suspected his fiction would have lost some of its bite. When he began writing spy fiction we were still in the Bondage era when spies were cool and heroic. Portraying an intelligence community filled with petty, backbiting, status-hungry spies and spy handlers must have been novel, if not a little shocking then. Since then, I’ve read several spy novels that acknowledge spies aren’t all stainless noble heroes. Our intelligence agencies do bad things and they include in their ranks careerists, incompetents and cold-blooded puppet masters. So I figured Le Carré might be one of the many groundbreakers who become old hat over time.
Man, did I get that one wrong.
The thing about Le Carré is that his heroes frequently are the careerists and the puppet masters. In The Looking-Glass War, George Smiley’s boss Control manipulates a branch of military intelligence into a disastrous operation solely to eliminate them as a rival to Control’s authority. Spy Who Came In From the Cold is a great deal darker.
I will pause here and say I’m not sure what someone born after the Cold War would make of it. I grew up with the Cold War and Le Carré’s depiction of Berlin still feels almost alien now, as strange as Victorian London or Camelot. For anyone who doesn’t know, the USSR and the US split a post-war Germany into democratic West Germany and Communist East Germany. The two new nations divided Berlin between them, which meant East Germans could defect simply by crossing from East to West Berlin. The Communists stopped that by building the once iconic Berlin Wall across the middle of the city, complete with barbed wire and armed guards.
The protagonist of Le Carré’s 1963 novel is Alec Leamas, MI5’s Berlin head of operations (played by Richard Burton in the excellent movie version). He’s implanted multiple moles in the East German spy network but time and time again, his German counterpart Mundt identifies and eliminates them. After the latest hit eliminates another asset, Leamas returns home in disgrace. Burned out, he slides into unemployment and alcoholism with only one human connection — Liz, a British communist working at the local library. Desperate for money, Leamas finally contacts an East German agent and offers to share his knowledge for a price.
In reality, Leamas is still working for MI5. His collapse is to make him bait for the East Germans; once they start interrogatig him, he’ll drop subtle details that will point to Mundt as a British asset. MI5 will back this up with planted evidence. East Germany bites and puts Mundt on trial; Leamas’ East German handler kidnaps him to East Berlin to serve as the star witness.
Mundt, however, has an ace up his sleeve. His people have, of course, gone over Leamas’ actions since his discharge with a fine-toothed comb. It turns out MI5, in violation of protocol, has been slipping the impoverished Liz some support money on Leamas’ behalf. Mundt’s people arrange for Liz to come to Berlin in a cultural exchange program, then puts her on the witness stand. Her testifying that Leamas has been able to support her proves he’s not dead broke and desperate. With Leamas’ cover story destroyed, Mundt is cleared of all charges and executes the underling prosecuting him.
That night Leamas sits seething in his cell, wondering how Smiley and Control could possibly have been so stupid. Then Mundt arrives: the big reveal is that he is a double agent. Leamas was a dupe; Control and Smiley arranged the whole thing to place Mundt above suspicion and eliminate his ambitious underling. This doesn’t improve Leamas’ mood much as he respected the underling — a loyal, patriotic German communist — and despises Mundt, an ex-Nazi who’s loyalty is entirely to Mundt. Still, Mundt does set Leamas and Liz free and send them home. He can’t do it officially but he’s arranged to shut down the searchlights on a particular stretch of the Berlin Wall that night, giving them time to climb over into West Berlin.
Oops. Leamas climbs the wall, reaches down to pull Liz up — and the lights come back on. The guards shoot Liz dead. Smiley, on the other side, asks if she’s alive and tells Leamas to jump. He does, back into East Berlin, choosing death over further dishonor.
While I enjoyed Le Carré’s first two novels, this one is a quantum leap above them in quality. It’s also several times darker. At best, Smiley and Control put an innocent woman’s life in jeopardy; at worst, they planned her death to eliminate a loose end. Liz was a disposable pawn and there are no consequences for the people who treated her that way. It’s not a rogue operation the Spies of Justice can roll up; no hero is going to expose them and reform the system. This is just how espionage is done in Le Carré’s world. While he believes in the value of spywork (he’s an ex-British agent himself), he’s also conscious of how ugly it gets.
A later retcon book, Legacy of Spies, reveals it was all useless — a traitor inside MI5 tipped the East Germans and they eliminated Mundt a week later. But even at the time, it’s hard not to wonder if it was justifiable or worth it. Sure, Mundt’s underling was gunning for him, but Mundt’s downfall was hardly inevitable — he could have survived even without Liz’s death. It’s that moral (immoral?) calculus that comics prefer to shrink from. Better to show the heroes really are good, no matter how dubious their actions: the adversary was just that evil or they didn’t have a choice or whatever they did wasn’t really that evil. When you have heroes you want fans to keep reading for years, it’s hard to go realistically dark rather than pretend-dark. Though admittedly my taste in comics is such I wouldn’t particularly want them to.