A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré
Updated: Jan 18, 2018
A fine new thriller from John le Carré, even if we go back to a place we have been before and in reality very little happens. That may sound negative, but le Carré is such a fine writer that this is still an excellent thriller.
For me, le Carré is a master plotter and this book proves that point by going back to 1963 and his first great spy writing triumph, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. He manages to create this new novel simply from the back story and the missing pieces of that earlier novel. First published in September 1963, my edition of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold dates from September 1964 and is the twentieth impression. It was a wildly successful book and would quickly be made into a film starring Richard Burton. I read it for the first time earlier this year and thought it was brilliant. The twists and turns of the plot kept me guessing right to the end. It certainly didn’t feel fifty years old.
One of le Carré’s great characters is George Smiley. His ghost haunts the pages of this new book, constantly teasing us with the possibility that he is still alive. A Legacy of Spies takes the very real construct of a Parliamentary investigation into the secret service, and in particular the death of Alec Leamas at the Berlin Wall, which was the denouement of the 1963 novel. Smiley’s young subaltern at the time, Peter Guillam, is pulled out of retirement to answer questions which might implicate both himself and Smiley. The lawyers circle him like predatory vultures. He tries every ruse he can remember not to give away the true story. Being taught to withstand Soviet interrogation may not teach you enough to hold out against a twenty-first century lawyer.
There are certain little touches to this book which I love. The survival of an old Cold War safe house, that has remained completely off the grid and unknown to Government paymasters for decades. It is a romantic vision of spying that such places could still exist, hidden in plain sight and unnoticed by modern forensic accounting. Stretching credibility further, Millie McCraig, the original housekeeper, is still living there. She has kept secrets stored inside her bicycle frame and hidden on old LPs. Still fiercely loyal to Smiley she will not give away his location to Guillam as he slips away from his minders. Le Carré closes the scene with a brilliant line. ‘Without another word she grasps my shoulders in her fierce, spindly hands and grants me one stern kiss of her sealed lips.’
It isn’t necessary to have read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to enjoy this book. It stands perfectly on its own merits. For anyone with a passion for absolute details, the timeline might cause problems, since George Smiley was supposed to be born in 1915, making him 102 and Peter Guillam somewhere in his mid-eighties. Smiley has already been through one time shift to make his age work during the 1970s heyday of Tinker Tailor Solder Spy and Smiley’s People. It seems unfair to make him lose a few more years for the sake of this book. Old spies should be allowed to retire at some point, even if their lives will always be in danger.
REVIEWER: Marcus Hobson
TITLE: A Legacy of Spies
AUTHOR(S): John le Carré
PUBLISHER: Penguin Random House