A Legacy Of Spies by John Le Carré

The Blurb On The Back:

Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, has retired to his 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 are to be scrutinized by a generation with no memory of the Cold War.  Somebody must be made to pay for innocent blood once spilt in the name of the greater good.

Interweaving past with present so that each may tell its own story, John le Carré has given us a novel of superb and enduring quality.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Peter Guillam – former bagman for the legendary former Circus chief George Smiley – has retired from the British Secret Service and retired to his family’s farm in Brittany, France where he lives with single mother Catherine and her nine-year-old daughter Isabelle.  Then he receives a letter from the Service ordering him to return to London as soon as possible to assist with an issue that has suddenly emerged from a historical case that he worked on.  The case relates to one that Guillam would rather forget – the deaths of ex-Service operative Alec Leamas and his lover, Liz Gold in East Berlin – but the Service needs him to go through it for them line by line, which means that Guillam is forced to confront his own actions and relive events that he’d much rather forget ….

John le Carré’s exquisitely plotted spy thriller should be read in conjunction with THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD as it revisits that book through Guillam’s eyes as he’s forced to account for what he did in the name of his country while also dealing with the ‘modern’ security service that cares more for public relations and visible accountability than the national interest.

There is an awful lot to enjoy in this book but to really get the most from it, you need to have read THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD first because so much of the book hinges on the events there and although le Carré gives a summary of what happened, because this book is from Guillam’s perspective so you get an extra layer to the original novel as you learn about what Control and Smiley were up to and how Guillam felt about it.  You also learn more about Guillam here – his family history and how he came into the Service – and I really enjoyed the idea of him here being an old man looking back on what he’s done for his country and questioning whether it was the right thing.  However, le Carré uses two time jumps here – having an older Guillam looking back on his being recalled by the Service and then looking back at the Leamas case and I did find that jarring and a little difficult to follow (having to re-read a couple of chapters in order to make sure I understood it).

I also thought that the law suit angle was a little bald, mainly because Christoph is not particularly well drawn and rather two-dimensional and he’s there to serve le Carré’s disdain for those who sue the security services for past crimes and show claimants to be either money-grabbers or naive idealists who don’t understand the times and necessities under which the services were operating.  Equally disappointing is how the book further undermines Liz Gold as a character and while I could understand that type of depiction in 1963, it’s harder to take in 2017 given how passive and gullible she is.

This said, no one manages plot like le Carré and I really enjoyed how he manages to breathe new life into THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD while also weaving in the kind of details and information that will delight fans of the Smiley books (including revealing the fate of the dastardly Mundt).  The cameos from Jim Prideaux and Smiley himself are also very welcome (personally I enjoyed Prideaux’s more because it’s so lovingly done) and there is a feeling of le Carré drawing a line under the characters here in a way that I think any Smiley fan would find very satisfactory.

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