Monday, October 13, 2014



"I can't talk like this, Control," Leamas said at last. "What do you want me to do?"

"I want you to stay out in the cold a little longer."

So begins the final mission of British Cold War operative Alec Leamas in John le CarrĂ©'s 1963 novel, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold". As you know, I've been knee-deep in Ian Fleming's suave take on Cold War espionage (and writing!), as seen through the eyes and voice of the literary James Bond. But Alec Leamas — the titular "spy who came in from the cold" — is no James Bond.

Leamas is, in fact, the anti-Bond — a broken, cynical man, through with life's challenges, and pleasures, content to drink his way into complete and total social isolation. He has no friends, barely a lover, no work and no prospects. Leamas is finished. He's a man who has nothing and wants nothing.

Or is he?

Remember — always remember — Leamas is a secret agent; a spy. His life, his mission, is to deceive others, to do things most people would regret — going to prison, falling purposely into enemy hands, living a lie — all for some ultimate goal he can in no way understand completely.

But most importantly for us writers (and readers!), Leamas has a voice so unbelievably strong that you can practically hear him on the page, mumbling, philosophizing, deceiving, sharing his advice — to us? To himself? To who knows who. I call these moments "Leamas-isms", the short, fleeting moments when he actually opens up to us, gives us his own point of view, his creed, and truly lets us into his world... in from the cold.

Here are a few of my favourites:


On Failure
Leamas was not a reflective man and not a particularly philosophical one. He knew he was written off — it was a fact of life which he would henceforth live with, as a man must live with cancer or imprisonment. He knew there was no kind of preparation which could have bridged the gap between then and now. He met failure as one day he would probably meet death, with cynical resentment and the courage of a solitary. He'd lasted longer than most; now he was beaten. It is said a dog lives as long as its teeth; metaphorically, Leamas' teeth had been drawn; and it was Mundt who had drawn them.

On Captivity
Leamas took as much exercise as he could during the day in the hope that he would sleep at night; but it was no good. At night you knew you were in prison: at night there was nothing, no trick of vision or self-delusion which saved you from the nauseating enclosure of the cell. You could not keep out the taste of prison, the smell of prison uniform, the stench of prison sanitation heavily disinfected, the noises of captive men. It was then, at night, that the idignity of captivity became urgently insufferable, it was then that Leamas longed to walk in the friendly sunshine of a London park. It was then that he hated the grotesque steel cage that held him, had to force back the urge to fall upon the bars with his bare fists, to split the skulls of his guards and burst into the free, free space of London. Sometimes he thought of Liz. He would direct his mind towards her briefly like the shutter of a camera, recall for a moment the soft-hard touch of her long body, then put her from his memory. Leamas was not a man accustomed to living on dreams.

On Death
It is said that men condemned to death are subject to sudden moments of elation; as if, like moths in the fire, their destruction were coincidental with attainment. Following directly upon his decision, Leamas was aware of a comparable sensation; relief, short-lived but consoling, sustained him for a while. It was followed by fear and hunger. 
He was slowing down. Control was right.

And finally, my favourite: On Deception
A man who lives a part, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without but from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earn a fortune, his role may forbid him the purchase of a razor, though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide.

Does your main character ever impart advice to the reader — their own "Leamas-isms"?