The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of the most famous spy novels ever written and one of the most influential. John le Carre published his novel just as the modestly successful James Bond series by Ian Fleming was about to become a global phenomenon. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold collected the Somerset Maugham Award in 1963 and the famous spy novelist in the world at the time—Graham Greene—cemented its status by referencing it as the best spy story he’d yet read. And Graham Greene had written a lot of spy stories.
What made The Spy Who Came in from The Cold such a game changer may well have been its revolution of the standard spy narrative. Previous spy novels of a serious nature tended to drawn moralistic lines between “us and them.” “Our” spies might have a license to kill (as well as a license for promiscuity) but ultimately they strayed from crossing over lines that “their” spies routinely crossed over. John le Carre removed the rose-colored glasses from readers of espionage thrillers by having the good guys and the bad guys in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold revealed as essentially no different from each other on moral or ethical grounds. In fact, the novel suggests that even ideological differences were not as strikingly divergent as the James Bond stories so effortlessly portrayed.
The centerpiece of the novel’s narrative is a British spy operation in which the expectation of a moral high ground is undone by the bloodthirsty ferocity of the violence by a group so focused on success over ethics that they engage a known Nazi in partnership. What le Carre exhibited for an audience not used to seeing was the reality that in the shadowy world of high stakes espionage between nations, both sides are more than willing to descent the level of taking any means necessary to support or further their ideological cause.
In addition to the Maugham Award, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was also named the Best Crime Novel of 1963 by the Crime Writers’ Association. When the book was published in the U.S. two years later, le Carre picked up an Edgar Award for the Best Mystery Novel of the Year. Richard Burton starred in a critically acclaimed film adaptation released at the end of the 1965.