Alec Leamas has been working for British Intelligence since World War II, and in Berlin during the Cold War for over ten years. He's disillusioned, cynical, hard, and alone. The book begins with Leamas watching from the guard station as his last agent in East Berlin is shot and killed at the checkpoint between East and West Berlin, only yards from safety as he tries to escape. A cruel and relentless man in East Germany named Mundt is primarily responsible for the loss of Leamas' agents, and after Leamas returns to England, his superiors offer Leamas a final mission: to take out Mundt. Along for a part of the story is a young, somewhat idealistic woman named Liz who falls for Leamas. At first I found her helplessness and lack of direction and backbone kind of irritating, but by the end of the book she redeems herself by growing into her own and becoming the conscience of the story.
From the very beginning, the plot is filled with unexpected twists and turns. I spent a lot of the book feeling kind of confused, having a couple possible scenarios in my head of where Le Carré was going, and wanting to read on to see what would happen. I felt the first twist was a little contrived, but the rest were pretty satisfying, and Le Carré managed to keep me wondering until the end. The best thing about this book, though, is that Le Carré doesn't glamourize his protagonist or the spy profession. Instead, he unveils a world of confusion, danger, shadowy characters, and moral ambiguity. The spying game is often a clumsy bureaucracy where people's lives are traded with impunity and often for very little in return. British Intelligence didn't have any problem sacrificing some individuals for their causes. But it's ironic that Communism is the paradigm that allows for individual sacrifices. So, what were they really fighting for? I'm guessing this question was even more resonant with readers during the Cold War when the book was first published, but it still rings true today.