In his newest book, A Legacy Of Spies published by Penguin Random House, John Le Carre returns to the characters and the times that first made him most famous. Yet, while the names, George Smiley, Peter Guillam, Alec Leamas, Jim Prideuaux and others are familiar from titles The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, the settings and the information revealed are quite new.
Guillam has left the Security Service (or The Circus) behind. He’s retreated to his mother’s family farm in the Breton region of France. However, once you’ve served in the intelligence community they never really let you go. So he’s not overly surprised to one day receive a letter summoning him to London on a matter of some urgency.
It turns out some of the cases he’d been involved in back in the Cold War, with Smiley and the others, have come out of the past to raise questions about the means and methods utilized and answers are being demanded. Since no one can find Smiley, Guillam, his former right hand man, is being called “home” to be served up like so much sacrificial lamb.
The cases the current crop of the security service is interested in are those directly, and indirectly, pertaining to Leamas as recounted by Le Carre in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It turns out Leamas had a son and he, along with another, are attempting to sue for damages because of the way things turned out for his father and other agents in the field.
In an effort to mitigate damage control, and find a scapegoat, Guillam is being called on to account for his actions during those periods. The answering of questions and the perusal of “official” files, naturally triggers his memories of the time in question. Aside from seeing how far the reality of what happened during the events in question differed from what’s in the files, we are once again reminded why Le Carre is one of the premier spy novelists around.
Not only are the characters beautifully drawn, we also are given insights into their motivations and how they could have possibly done some of the morally questionable things they did. While he might never have questioned why he was doing something in the moment, we see from Guillam’s own recollections how much they effected him. His risk taking and keeping secrets from his own handlers, including his beloved Smiley, were all signs he wasn’t as content with his lot as he would have liked to think.
Le Carre has done a masterful job of retelling The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, one of his first books, through the eyes of those who worked behind the scenes. Even here, when supposedly the truth is being revealed, there are only hints and allusions to events which give us an indication of what the plan was.
Moving backwards and forwards in time, Guillam’s memories take us back to the early days of the Berlin Wall while his interrogation by his former employees is in the present. A Legacy Of Spies provides us with some of the deepest insights into both the mind of a field agent and the world of secrets Le Carre invented all those years ago.
In some ways this book might be seen as the author’s attempt to look back at beloved characters and work through how the world would see them today. Are they heroes, villains, something somewhere in between – creatures occupying a kind of morally nebulous ground where results are all that mattered and means aren’t to be questioned?
Typical of Le Carre there are no easy answers – he leaves the reader to make their own decisions. Also typical of this author is the cerebral nature of the work. Don’t come to this book looking for gun fights and corpses littering the scenery. Rather, be prepared to not only be drawn into a world where everything has at least three meanings and you’re expected to think for yourself.
There was a story circulated around the time of its publication that Richard Nixon had to have Henry Kissinger explain to him what was happening in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as he was having trouble keeping up with the plot twists. A Legacy Of Spies doesn’t have the same number of hair pin turns as its predecessor, but its as deeply satisfying and just as intriguing.
A Legacy Of Spies is the final proof, if any other was needed, that Le Carre was one of the few writers able to elevate the spy novel, a genre previously considered close to pulp fiction, and turn it into an art form.