James Patterson hears you hitting the button. James Patterson gives you the pellet. You would think that after selling hundreds of millions of copies, he would have enough money to consider taking a risk now and then. His musical polar opposite would be Radiohead. His culinary equivalent would be a ham sandwich on white bread. I almost want to start a James Patterson drinking game with one rule: “Take a shot if two separate action sequences occur fewer than ten pages apart”. But then MADD or DARE or whoever would come after me with whatever they had in their purses because that’s a really irresponsible amount of drinking to promote.
John le Carre, on the other hand, will forever be celebrated in my spy thriller canon with Ian Fleming because he just does not give a good goddamn about what the reader wants, at least not in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. (This is not to suggest Fleming does this, because James Bond is the man we all want to be, but the day I omit Bond from a spy thriller canon is the day I check into an asylum.) Unlike the movie version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (another le Carre novel), I was continually engaged with the mundane. There are pages about Alec Leamas fulfilling the duties of a library clerk and they, too, are interesting because the reader is left to wonder why he would waste such a promising career in espionage. The natural suspicion, of course, is that he agreed to Control’s offer and wanted to appear so far gone from the structured life at The Circus that rival agencies felt comfortable turning him into a defector. And eventually that is revealed to be the truth, but imagine the patience and trust le Carre had in his own talent to submit a subject so dry.
More impressive is le Carre’s ability to not just put you in the setting, but put you in the mindset of the era. The reader knows that Alec is defecting. The reader knows that Alec isn’t really defecting. Alec is letting on enough for Kiever, Peters, and others to trust him, but he has to let on more than he should; letting on importantly innocuous details, specifically, or these trained professionals will know he hasn’t flipped. This creates the culture of paranoia that the Cold War embodied. The Circus even knows that they have spies among them and, according to Alec, this is just something they have grown accustomed to living with. Too often in spy thrillers, there are “aha! I was lying and you fell for it” moments. There are none of those here, really. True, Alec is roping in Peters and everyone in DSK, but his life was the alcoholic shamble they required. Through the third-person limited omniscient narrative, the reader knows that Alec became the lie he set out to perpetrate, and it wasn’t by tragic accident.
Many novels celebrate the mundane (I say as I continue to trudge through War and Peace), but few make the mundane the ultimate payoff. Perhaps I’m too much of a realist for my own good, but it’s fascinating to see exactly what one would expect from Cold War spies: they don’t get to go undercover with tuxedos at a lavish ball and a smoking hot woman, they get to live out a desperate existence in hopes that the smallest bit of information will snowball into the end of the war.