The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | Study Guide

John le Carré

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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Creating an Impression

In West Berlin during the early 1960s, British spy Alec Leamas waits at the checkpoint at the Berlin Wall for another agent named Karl Riemeck to come across from East Berlin to West Berlin. Karl is late, making Leamas worried. Soon he sees Karl pass the first two stages of the checkpoint. But before he reaches the final stage and safety, he is shot several times by East Berlin guards. Leamas returns to the Circus (British secret service) in London. He figures he'll be cast aside by the Circus for his recent failures as Deputy-Controller of Area while in Berlin. Several agents there, including Karl, have been killed by Mundt, the head of the Abteilung (East German secret service). "Control," the head of the Circus, meets with Leamas. He wants Leamas to help get rid of Mundt, which Leamas is eager to do. Leamas will remain an active agent in Berlin, but for a while he will act as if the Circus has treated him badly.

To help further this impression, the "Circus" transfers Leamas from operational work to the banking section in London. He does a mundane job and appears to go to seed. As part of the cover for his assignment, he begins to drink heavily, and one day he doesn't show up for work at all. Leamas rents a dingy apartment, gets odd jobs, and continues to drink a lot. With the help of an employment office, Leamas gets work at a library, where he meets a young female worker named Liz Gold. Liz befriends Leamas, asking him to her place for dinner several times. Leamas realizes she's a communist, which he finds ironic. This situation shows situational irony because something happens to Leamas that is the opposite of what he expects. Because he works as a spy against communists, he never expected to befriend one. One night Liz and Leamas make love. When Leamas doesn't show up for work, Liz goes to his apartment and finds him sick in bed. During the next week, she nurses him back to health. Liz comes to love Leamas, and although Leamas does not admit he loves her, he has formed a close bond with her. Leamas gently explains to Liz that he has to leave. The next day, Leamas beats up a grocer in a store who refuses to let him buy on credit.

Prison and a Gold Mine

Leamas spends several months in prison. When he gets out, a man named Ashe approaches him. Ashe ingratiates himself with Leamas, claiming to have met him in Berlin, but Leamas thinks Ashe has an ulterior motive. At the house of George Smiley (a leader in the Circus), Leamas finds that Smiley is not at home. Instead, Leamas finds Control there. He apologizes for not making Leamas's stay in prison more comfortable. Control knows the East Germans have contacted Leamas through Ashe. Leamas insists that Liz not be involved in the operation, and Control agrees.

Ashe introduces Leamas to Kiever. The threesome go to a striptease club, where Leamas gets angry at Ashe. Ashe leaves, and Kiever makes a proposition to Leamas. Kiever wants "journalistic" information from Leamas, which involves his sharing his life experiences for a client. Leamas will meet the client in Holland. The next morning, Leamas and Kiever take a flight to The Hague and then drive in a car to the outskirts of the city. At a villa named Le Mirage, Leamas meets a man named Peters. After Kiever leaves, Peters interviews Leamas, who tells him detailed information about his work for the Circus during World War II and afterward in Berlin. Leamas describes how he contacted Karl, who did important work for the Abteilung. When Karl began providing valuable information about the Abteilung, Leamas knew he had hit a sort of gold mine for his assignment. Peters believes Karl must have had an accomplice, someone even higher up in the Abteilung. Leamas denies this. He says as the Circus took more direct control over Karl, the operation's security weakened. Alone at night, Leamas wonders if Karl really did have an accomplice.

Rolling Stone

The next day, Leamas tells Peters about his work in the banking section, which involved an operation named "Rolling Stone." For this operation, Leamas set up a joint bank account in Helsinki and another in Copenhagen to help pay agents. He was a signee and a co-holder, probably the agent being paid, the other signee. Leamas used an alias for the accounts, and he assumed the co-holder did as well. Leamas deposited a large sum in each account.

Peters is interested that Control was directly involved in Rolling Stone and wonders if the agent being paid was East German. Leamas denies this, saying that, having worked in Berlin, Leamas would have known if the agent was East German. Peters tells Leamas that news has leaked in Britain about his being a defector, and, as a result, the Circus wants to arrest Leamas. Peters wants Leamas to come behind the Iron Curtain into communist-controlled Europe, where he will be safe and can finish his interrogation. The news leak seems to surprise Leamas, but he agrees with Peters's plan.

Back in London, Liz misses Leamas and has nothing to remember him by. One day, two men who claim to be Leamas's friends visit Liz. One of them, a seemingly shy, little man, asks if many people know about her relationship with Leamas. Liz says they do not but admits she knows that Leamas has some kind of job to do. The little man seems concerned about this and tells Liz to let him know if she finds out why Leamas attacked the grocer. He leaves his card, which lists his name as Mr. George Smiley.

Leamas and Peters take a plane to West Berlin, then take a car and are permitted to drive through the checkpoint at the Berlin Wall into East Berlin. They continue driving to a house in a forest, where Leamas meets Fiedler—second in command to Mundt in the Abteilung. Leamas knows Control wants him to provide information to Fiedler that will incriminate Mundt. Fiedler can then use this information to destroy Mundt.

Fiedler and Mundt themselves have had conflicts: Mundt is a former Nazi, and Fiedler is Jewish. The next morning, Fiedler wonders if Rolling Stone has ties with East Germany, but Leamas again denies this. During the next week, Leamas and Fiedler have long talks. Even though Mundt killed some British agents, Leamas admits the Circus did not seriously pursue him. Apparently, a top advisor for the Circus, Maston didn't want to capture Mundt for fear he'd provide information about how Maston had failed in an operation. Fiedler doesn't seem convinced by this. He believes Mundt is secretly working for the Circus and, as a result, often killed enemy agents to prevent them from talking, but Leamas claims this idea is absurd. Fiedler tells Leamas that Mundt was visiting Copenhagen at the same time that money was drawn from the joint bank account Leamas established there.

Meanwhile, in London, Liz receives a letter from the Communist Party inviting her to take part in an exchange program in East Germany. Liz is dumbfounded by this letter because she doesn't consider herself a very important member of the Party. She decides the Party must be doing this out of the goodness of its heart and accepts the invitation.

Prison and a Trial

In the house in the German forest, police attempt to arrest Leamas and Fiedler. Leamas kills one of the guards, but then is knocked unconscious. He wakes up in a prison cell with his hands and feet tied together. A guard unties Leamas and takes him to a room where Mundt is waiting. Mundt tells Leamas that Leamas will serve as a witness against Fiedler, and that Leamas might go on trial for killing the guard. Mundt knows Leamas was feeding Fiedler information, and that Fiedler wants to use this information to convict Mundt of being a traitor. Mundt views this plan as stupid and obvious. Suddenly, the door opens, Mundt is arrested, and Leamas, barely conscious, is carried away. Leamas wakes up in a hospital bed and has a talk with Fiedler. Mundt had Fiedler beaten because he's a Jew. Even so, when the Praesidium (executive committee) read Fiedler's report against Mundt, they decided to arrest Mundt and free Fiedler.

In Leipzig, East Germany, Liz attends meetings sponsored by the Communist Party. One day, officials tell her she has been invited to a special meeting. Liz gets in a car and is driven to Gorlitz, deep in the communist state near the Polish border. In a small courtroom, the Praesidium holds Mundt's trial. There is a Tribunal, consisting of three judges. Fiedler is the prosecuting attorney, and a man named Karden is the defense attorney for Mundt. Leamas sits near the back under guard. Mundt wears a prison uniform and is also heavily guarded.

Fiedler claims that Mundt gave classified information to Karl, who passed it on to the Circus. Because Mundt was such a useful source of information, the leaders of the Circus kept him a secret from its other members. As a result, Leamas never knew that Mundt was a defector. Karden claims the Circus wants to get rid of Mundt. Because of this, the Circus, through Leamas, gave Fiedler information to use against Mundt. However, this information itself is false. The Circus set up the bank accounts in Helsinki and Copenhagen to give the appearance that Mundt was receiving payments for being an informant. According to Karden, Leamas's bitterness toward the Circus and his descent into alcoholism was just a ruse to convince Fiedler that Leamas wanted to defect.

Karden brings in Liz as a witness. Liz sees Leamas, but has no idea what the trial is about. She's afraid to say anything to get Leamas in trouble, but doesn't know what will help or hurt him. Karden harshly interrogates Liz. She says that friends of Leamas paid his bills after he left prison, even though Leamas claimed not to have any friends, and a charity unexpectedly paid Liz's apartment lease. She confesses that George Smiley visited her after Leamas went abroad. Liz admits thinking that Leamas had some job he must do.

Karden insists Leamas was taking part in a plan to frame Mundt. Hearing all this, Leamas becomes confused and wonders why the Circus would pay his bills and Liz's lease. Leamas takes the witness stand, and Fiedler escorts Liz out of the courtroom. Leamas admits he took part in the Circus's plan to frame Mundt. Leamas figures Smiley paid his bills because he had second thoughts about the plan and therefore intentionally sabotaged it. Fiedler seems to accept defeat. Suddenly, Leamas realizes that a terrible trick has been played.

After the trial, Mundt enters Liz's cell and leads her out of the building, where she sees Leamas waiting for her by a car. Leamas and Liz get in the car, and Leamas drives them toward Berlin. He explains that Mundt really is a double agent working for the Circus. The Circus kept this fact secret from most of the organization, including Leamas. However, Fiedler was becoming suspicious of Mundt. To prevent Fiedler from exposing Mundt, the Circus had Leamas convince Fiedler that he wanted to defect. Eager to convict Mundt, Fiedler gathered the information Leamas gave him to use against Mundt. Even though much of this information was actually true, the Circus made it appear false and made Fiedler look as if he was just driven by personal revenge. At the trial, Karden convinced the Tribunal that Fiedler was duped by the Circus and that Mundt is really innocent. As a result, Fiedler will be shot and Mundt will go free, which is what the Circus wants. Liz says it's horrible how the Circus has used her and Fiedler. Although Fiedler is a loyal communist, he is a better man than Mundt, who is a racist Nazi. Leamas claims that the Circus justifies its actions by the rationale that in general individuals must be sacrificed for the good of the whole.

The Crossing

Leamas drives them into Berlin, where he picks up a man who guides them toward the Wall. The Circus has arranged a spot where Leamas and Liz can cross over the wall but they will only have 90 seconds to do so. Leamas stops the car near the wall by the crossing spot. He and Liz get out of the car, and the man drives the vehicle away. Leamas climbs to the top of the wall and tries to help Liz follow after him. However, searchlights suddenly shine directly on Liz, and she is shot and falls to the ground. Horrified, Leamas climbs down to Liz's dead body. In an instant, he is also shot to death.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Leamas sees an agent shot as he tries to enter West Berlin.

Rising Action

2 The Circus gives Leamas an assignment to get rid of Mundt.

3 Leamas quits the Circus, drinks heavily, and goes to seed.

4 Leamas and Liz Gold fall in love.

5 Leamas defects to the East Germans.

6 Leamas gives Fiedler information to frame Mundt.

7 Mundt is arrested and put on trial.

8 Liz's testimony at Mundt's trial supports his innocence.

9 Leamas testifies and reveals the truth about his assignment.

10 Leamas realizes that the Circus has deceived him.


11 Fiedler and Leamas are arrested.

Falling Action

12 Liz is detained.

13 Leamas and Liz escape and drive to Berlin.

14 Leamas tells Liz how they have both been used by the Circus.


15 Leamas and Liz are killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall.

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