What I said then:
"The classic Cold War thriller." (side note --- Jesus, I need to go back and make these mini-descriptions more detailed. This is ridiculous.)
What I say now:
I'm not a massive fan of the crime/thriller genre these days. I went through a phase in my early to mid teens when I read a lot of books by guys (it was always guys) like John Grisham, Jeffrey Archer and Frederick Forsyth. Then on my sixteenth birthday my Mum gave me Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five and The Magus, and I've never really looked back. So it was with some trepidation that I came to le Carre's classic spy thriller, fearing that it'd be too 'me-at-fifteen,' and not enough 'me-now.'
Happily, I can report that those fears were (mostly) unfounded. Unless I'm remembering Archer and Forsyth unfairly, le Carre is operating on a different level. His writing is mostly sparse and clear, and only rarely overwrought - something a lot of thriller writers slip into. The plot is clever but never so clever that it becomes unclear or difficult to follow. The main character, Leamas, is a fascinating bundle of (seeming) contradictions: he spends most of the book convincingly acting a part, but le Carre is careful to leave a few clues to his true personality scattered throughout, making him pleasingly enigmatic.
There's an unfortunate thing that can happen when you come late as a reader to a seminal work. If you're aware of all the stuff that followed, that imitated the original hit, then a lot of the original work's power can be lost to you. When something becomes a cliche, it's unfair on the book or movie that spawned that cliche. It's happened to me with William Gibson's Neuromancer, Ridley Scott's Bladerunner and, unfortunately, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold did succumb. The frisson of originality that it must once have had was lost. Luckily, it's a significantly better book than most of the things that came after it, so it still succeeds in its own right.
The other, more important, criticism that I'd make of it is a pretty familiar one. The mechanics of the conspiracy plot are smooth and logical and mesh perfectly ... but there's a love story attached. And the love story doesn't work at all. Towards the end of the book the couple's feelings for each other are what determines their actions, but when they sacrifice themselves for love it doesn't really fly, because the love story wasn't strong enough to earn the tough choices that they make. It's a common concern, I think, in genre fiction: everything else is cool, but then you've gotta have a girl, right? So she gets tacked on, and the romance is invariably the weakest link of the book (or movie). The moral of the story: no women! Or well-written women! Because if you're just gonna do it half-assed, that ain't gonna cut it.
about to read: The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
books to go: 117