A Legacy of Spies

When the writer John Le Carré passed away in December 2020, I ended my little tribute to him with the following:

The last John le Carré book I bought was A Legacy of Spies (2017), which I haven’t yet got around to reading. I’ll put that on the list of Christmas reading, and drink a toast to an author who has given me so much to enjoy and to think about over so many years.

I didn’t actually get around to reading the book at Christmas. I did however notice it the other day still among my (substantial) pile of as-yet-unread books while I was looking for a distraction from examination marking, and decided to read it now, which I have. It’s very good, and also brought back a lot of memories of the entire Smiley sequence, so I heartily recommend it.

I watched the two TV series based on books by John le Carré – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People – when they were broadcast so decided to read those books, and after those read all the others he had written by that time.

Not all his early books were great, but The Spy who came in from the Cold is excellent as are Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People – the so-called Karla trilogy. A Legacy of Spies is based on many of the characters to be found in these other novels. The central character, Peter Guillam, appears in the Karla Trilogy and the plot itself revolves around the failed operation described in The Spy who came in from the Cold that resulted in the death of Elizabeth Gold and Alec Leamas at the Berlin Wall. There are even short appearances by Jim Prideaux (the British agent captured during Operation Testify in Tinker Tailor) and right at the very end by George Smiley himself.

Smiley’s remarks at the end, looking back over his career as a spy, with all the cruelty and death and amorality that entailed, are apposite:

‘So was it all for England, then?’ he resumed. ‘There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter.

No prizes for guessing where that phrase came from!

A Legacy of Spies has an unusual narrative structure, the story told in part through flashbacks and documents. Guillam, in retirement in Brittany in his old age, is dragged into an investigation into alleged wrongdoings by the Circus and has to prepare some sort of defence but lots of important evidence is missing. He has to rely on his own memory but there are things he must withhold to protect himself and others. It’s a gripping read and made me want to read the entire sequence again right from the beginning.

2 Responses to “A Legacy of Spies”

  1. The third paragraph begins “I read the two could by John le Carré” – some editing slip?

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