As so often happens, the comments on last month’s piece (What Do Your Readers Know and When Do They Know It) showed that there was a lot more to the topic than I could cover in a single column. So I thought it would help to look in some detail at how a master of the craft created tension by how he fed his readers information.
If you’re not already familiar with John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the quickest, easiest way to get to know the story is to stream the movie. The plot follows the book very closely. Besides, Richard Burton and Claire Bloom are always a pleasure to watch, and keep an eye peeled for a very young Robert Hardy. If you’d like to check it out now, I’ll wait.
So, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold opens with Alec Leamas, the head of the Berlin bureau of MI6 (i.e. the Circus), waiting for Karl, his last remaining operative, to make a desperate run across the border from East Germany. Karl finally appears but is gunned down before he can reach safety. All of Leamas’ other operatives have also been hunted down and eliminated by Mundt, a particularly vicious chief of the East German secret service (i.e. the Abteilung). So when Lemmas’ boss, Control, offers him a chance to destroy Mundt once and for all, he jumps at it.
Given that setup, le Carré then proceeds to feed his readers information at three different levels of reality: what the world thinks is happening, what Leamas thinks is happening, and what is actually happening.
We first watch level one develop as Leamas comes apart at the seams. He’s given a makework job in accounting at the Circus, starts to drink, is accused of embezzlement and fired, drinks more, and winds up in a grimy apartment working a menial job at a library. There he meets and starts to fall for a young, idealistic communist named Liz (‘Nan’ in the movie). Despite the light she brings into his life, he continues to spiral downward until he assaults a grocer and is jailed. When he’s released from prison, he’s approached by a bumbling East German agent, who has heard about his situation from Liz.
At this point, le Carré pulls back the curtain on the second level. Leamas sneaks off for a secret meeting with Control that makes it clear his disgrace and collapse are a ruse to get the East Germans to recruit him. In this meeting, Control challenges him on his relationship with Liz – it’s out of character for someone spiraling into degradation to fall in love – and offers to help her out. It’s during this meeting that readers also learn, almost in passing, that George Smiley, the Circus’s legendary strategist, wants nothing to do with the operation (a detail omitted from the movie).
Le Carré still hasn’t revealed how Leamas’ staged collapse will lead to his getting revenge on Mundt, so curiosity about the plan will keep readers turning the pages. But they’ve also come to realize by this point that Leamas is intelligent, brave, idealistic, and loving. They care about him, and are worried that he’s essentially turning himself over to the enemy. At the same time, they’re eager to see him defeat Mundt, who has done so much damage to his life.
While all these sources of tension are in play, le Carré slips in the first hint of the third level at work – that there is a plan beyond the one Leamas knows. [Read more…]