Book Review: A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré


I recall first hearing about George Smiley back when I was in Primary school. Alec Guinness was portraying him at the time in the now classic BBC TV adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. George Smiley, the Cold War era English master spy. A thoroughly decent, professorial sort – he would surely have been an Oxford Don had he not been recruited into the “Circus” – who enjoys his visits to the British Museum and is pained by the frequent unfaithfulness of his wife. How could you not adore him?

Smiley was first introduced to the world in 1961 in Le Carré’s novel Call for the Dead. In 2009 Radio 4 produced dramatisations of all eight novels that had featured George Smiley up until then. These are available for purchase as part of a single collection via Audible and are highly recommended. And now, with Le Carré in his mid-80’s, we surely have in A Legacy of Spies what must be the final novel that will feature our hero.

A Legacy of Spies begins with George’s right hand man and protégé, Peter Guillam, now long retired and living in his ancestral home in Britanny, France. One morning, Guillam receives a letter from his former spymasters in London requesting his immediate return to assist with some legal inquiries.

It transpires that two of the protagonists who died in very tragic circumstances in the 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, had both been parents of a child each, and those children were now intent on forcing the Intelligence establishment to admit that they – including Guillam – had deliberately used their parents as fodder to protect a British mole in the East German hierarchy. It is an ingenious plot device that allows Le Carré and us to revisit some of the dark scenes back in the fevered atmosphere of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

This allows for the pages of Legacy to be adorned with a cast of familiar characters including Control, Bill Haydon, Jim Prideaux and many others. It does mean that the reader will require knowledge of the plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to fully appreciate the nuances offered by this latest Le Carré offering. And if that means that more readers will now have to become students of George Smiley – well, that can only be a good thing.

As Legacy proceeds, Guillam keeps asking “Where’s Smiley? Is he still alive?” No one seems to provide a definitive answer. And when we finally do meet him, it is an encounter that fully does justice to him. We find him in a library, of course – where else? And what is he up to? Well, “…an old spy in his dotage seeks the truth of ages.” Smiley defends the Service as you would expect. They were not the same as their enemies. “We were not pitiless, Peter. We were never pitiless. We had the larger pity.”

And what does the old spymaster now value at the end of a long life after duelling with some pretty merciless foes?

“I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I were ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”

At a time when the achievements of Western civilisation and the insights provided by science are cheapened and derided by a host of global actors including an ignoramus US President on the one hand and closed minded religious fanatics and Brexiteers on the other, identifying Europe and reason as important goals to fight for is eminently worthy of our beloved spy master. This is a magnificently fitting tribute from Le Carré to his most memorable creation.

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