From the back cover:
“In this classic, John le Carré’s third novel and the first to earn him international acclaim, he created a world unlike any previously experienced in suspense fiction. With unsurpassed knowledge culled from his years in British Intelligence, le Carré brings to light the shadowy dealings of international espionage in the tale of a British agent who longs to end his career but undertakes one final, bone-chilling assignment.
When the last agent under his command is killed and Alec Leamas is called back to London, he hopes to come in from the cold for good. His spymaster, Control, however, has other plans. Determined to bring down the head of East German Intelligence and topple his organization, Control once more sends Leamas into the fray—this time to play the part of the dishonoured spy and lure the enemy to his ultimate defeat.”
On the face of it, one might suppose this novel is merely an outdated relic of a bygone era, a piece of genre fiction whose value at the time of publication might have been judged solely by how entertaining it was. However, this novel deserves its reputation as a classic of the twentieth century, offering much more insight than a typical spy story. It does have great spy novel elements too: plots and stratagems that take the reader by surprise, dark “action” scenes behind enemy lines, and a beautiful young love interest for the protagonist. But its strength as a novel lies in its exposition of the ubiquity of immorality in the fight no matter what the ultimate principles might be. In this particular instance, the fight is the Cold War, but it could just as easily be “the War on Terror” or what have you. They say that we on this side are fighting for good (i.e. human rights, anti-terrorism, freedom, democracy), and yet those very principles are being sacrificed with secret prisons, torture, and putting child soldiers on trial. Things haven’t changed much since this book was written, sadly.