Non spoiler review: A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré


Wow. After over twenty five years we have a new Smiley book. Something I never thought I’d see happen, has happened. Was it worth going back to the well? I think so.

Before we get too far, it’s best to set expectations. In truth, A Legacy of Spies is about Peter Guillam, not Smiley. It’s told in the first person, a welcome return for le Carré, and shows Guillam’s perspective as he is called to account by the current heads of the Circus for actions that took place leading up to and during le Carré’s first big hit, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Rather than the lead character, Smiley is more like Luke Skywalker in the most recent Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, a looming presence kept off stage for the majority of the action.

With the Smiley discussion out of the way, we can begin to fairly assess the book. Le Carré has written previously about his love of Sherlock Holmes and he makes the connection between Smiley/Guillam and Holmes/Watson even stronger with this book by having Guillam telling us the story. Like Watson before him you get a great sense of the character, and the dialogue between Guillam and the Circus lawyers trying to cover the backsides of their superiors sparks with humor. It has a bit of a The Hound of the Baskervilles feel as the story unspools via flashbacks, memos and reports.

The heart of the book looks at the network of spies of poor Alec Leamus that we see blown apart in the opening chapter of TSWCIFTC. Guillam is forced to relive the decisions he made in those years and reflect whether the lives that the Circus (sometimes too easily) sacrificed were worth the gains. 

You get the sense given the iconic status Smiley gained from the Karla trilogy, that perhaps le Carré felt old George got off a little too lightly in TSWCIFTC. It’s a worthy addition to the Circus books and does a wonderful job filling in the gaps we never got to see due to the tricky narrative nature of TSWCIFTC, and the closest, though odd, comparison I would make is to Back to the Future Part 2. A Legacy of Spies flits from the present to the past, dancing around the events of the 1963 book, backfilling details on what the various players we got to know in le Carré’s later books were up to.

That being said, the ending does end up feeling a bit too pat. What should be a big climactic confrontation fizzles a bit and as we get to the end there’s a sense of “Why didn’t they do that in the first place?” 

Still, these are quibbles. For fans, the book will be one they can’t put down until they finish and will have you running out to reread The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. We can only hope this is not a swan song but rather a new beginning.

Further thoughts: 

I think this book in particular will benefit from hearing le Carré read it himself. I was listening to him read The Pigeon Tunnel just before reading this and couldn’t help but hear his voice telling the story.

One of the more fascinating things le Carré has created in the new book is “The Stables,” the building where Smiley and his crew secretly plan their devious plots. It truly does become a character in it’s own right. The description unfortunately doesn’t match up with any real location I can find yet, but it does take on a very real presence in the book.

I do wonder whether the recent decision to remake The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for television led to the new book or vice versa. Either way the choosing that particular novel for the screen makes much more sense now. It will be interesting to see how much, if any of A Legacy of Spies they use in the new production.

From the book description:

Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is living out his old age on the family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, and involved such characters as Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, George Smiley and Peter Guillam himself, are to be scrutinized by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications.

Interweaving past with present so that each may tell its own intense story, John le Carré has spun a single plot as ingenious and thrilling as the two predecessors on which it looks back: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In a story resonating with tension, humor and moral ambivalence, le Carré and his narrator Peter Guillam present the reader with a legacy of unforgettable characters old and new.

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2 thoughts on “Non spoiler review: A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

  1. Pingback: 14: Jeff reveals his tips on collecting Spy Books - Spybrary - Spy Podcast

  2. Pingback: Le Carré, Revisited  – Spy Write

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