Novel: A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

With the publication of his autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel last year, John le Carré seemed to be wrapping up a career. I read it with a lingering sense of dread that he was retiring, and we had seen his last novel. Fortunately, that fear was unfounded, for now he’s gifted us with A Legacy of Spies (2017)—and what a gift it is, especially for lifelong fans of his work.

The novel resurrects le Carré’s fictional British intelligence service, the Circus, for one last turn on the dance floor. An elderly Peter Guillam, retired to northern France after a long career in intelligence work, is called back to London by his modern-day counterparts to participate in an inquiry. What at first appears to be an amicable interview, however, turns out to be an interrogation into long-buried Circus operations. An old case has resurfaced involving the descendants of Guillam’s old friend Alec Leamas, which could very well have tricky legal ramifications for the British government. His old instincts for the game sliding naturally back into place, Guillam walks a fine line between cooperation and deception as he leads his interrogators, rather unreliably, through a secret history of the Circus’s “glory days”—and is forced to reconsider the consequences of his long-ago actions while serving as protégé to the legendary George Smiley.

A Legacy of Spies reads, on some levels, like nostalgic fan service, a memory-lane recapitulation of le Carré’s early classics—particularly his breakout novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the details of which figure prominently in the present-track plot. As a fan, I can say this: the service is superb. Guillam has always been one of my favorite characters, so an entire novel focused on him, after so many years away, is an unexpected delight. One of my favorite scenes in the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy miniseries is the interrogation of Guillam at the hands of Smiley’s suspects. Michael Jayston’s sarcastic, fierce responses in that scene echoed in my head throughout A Legacy of Spies, conjuring the old magic in spinetingling fashion. What more could a diehard le Carré fan ask for?

Yet more is delivered. While the novel may re-tread old ground to some degree, it isn’t doing so for the sake of it. Le Carré has rather cleverly reframed his old work for a modern perspective, examining the ethics of his legendary characters through the lens of hindsight. Nobody does spy-fiction interrogations more effectively than le Carré, so what a joy it is to read A Legacy of Spies, which literally interrogates its protagonist at length, even as the author interrogates his own body of work. It makes for deft, fascinating reflection. Meanwhile, in gloriously vivid flashback scenes—something else le Carré has always done masterfully—a secret history of the events between the events is stitched over the course of several of the author’s novels. The nooks and crannies of le Carré’s extended universe are fleshed out, from the early groundwork of Call for the Dead, to the pivotal events of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, to the epic trilogy of Circus novels consisting of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People. Curious what Peter Guillam was up to, off-stage, during this stretch of novels? Ever wonder how Smiley felt about his schemes after the fact? A Legacy of Spies answers these types of questions, and revisits a robust pantheon of classic characters: Control, Leamas, Liz Gold, Bill Haydon, Percy Alleline, Toby Esterhase, Roy Bland, Jim Prideaux, Millie McCraig, Inspector Mendel, Connie Sachs, even the nebulous Fawn—all of them are brought vividly back to life. It conjures an explosion of memories, even as it tells a compelling new tale.

By its very nature, A Legacy of Spies isn’t liable to be a gateway book. There were times, in fact, when I wondered how coherent its plot would read to those unfamiliar with the earlier work. But for the converted, steeped in the lore of le Carré’s unforgettable universe and intrigued to see his most famous creations recontextualized for the modern day, the novel is an absolute joy.

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