Title: A Legacy of Spies
Author: John le Carré
Le Carré, John (2017). A Legacy of Spies: A Novel. New York, New York: Viking
PR6062.E33 L44 2017
- “The undisputed master returns with a riveting new book–his first Smiley novel in more than twenty-five years 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 Carre 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 ColdandTinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In a story resonating with tension, humor and moral ambivalence, le Carre and his narrator Peter Guillam present the reader with a legacy of unforgettable characters old and new”– Provided by publisher.
Date Posted: September 6, 2017
Review by Dwight Garner
John le Carré’s new novel is a throwback, a coda to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), his best-known book. It rehashes decisions made in the coldest years of the Cold War. Among this book’s pleasures is a reminder that adults were once in charge of the destiny of the free world.
This is le Carré’s 24th novel. He is 85. If his long-ago first book, Call for the Dead (1961), reads at times like juvenilia, our fear is that this one will be senilia, a book necessarily composed with an older man’s diminished mnemonic power.
The good news about A Legacy of Spies is that it delivers a writer in full. Le Carré’s prose remains brisk and lapidary. His wit is intact and rolls as if on casters. He is as profitably interested as ever in values, especially the places where loyalty, patriotism and affection rub together and fray. He wears his gravitas lightly.
This button-down writer even indulges in a bit of showmanship. Le Carré hauls out his greatest creation, the Yoda-like spymaster George Smiley, for a cameo appearance, as if he were taking a ‘60s-era Lamborghini long kept in the garage—Smiley’s last appearance was 27 years ago, in The Secret Pilgrim—for a jaunty Sunday spin.
Never mind that Smiley must be well over 100 by now. He’s a type; one of those ashen Englishmen, like the poet Philip Larkin, who seem to be permanently 60 years old. Like Keith Richards and cockroaches, Smiley will be alive after an apocalypse.
A drawback of crime and spy novels, for this reader, is that they turn you into a tough-guy manqué. They make you feel you should learn a chokehold and begin carrying a shiv, in case vigilante justice needs meting out in the dairy aisle.
Le Carré’s novels have their share of rough justice: murders, torture scenes, bad accidents. But his characters play rugby only when chess has failed them. Le Carré is interested in leverage of every sort. It’s a typical moment, in A Legacy of Spies, when a thin man debates how best to use a thick man’s weight against him.
Le Carré has written that an early draft of his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (his books have been blessed with memorable titles) began with this mental image: “a solitary and embittered man living alone on a Cornish cliff, staring up at a single black car as it wove down the hillside towards him.”
Move the setting to the south coast of Brittany, subtract a bit of the bitterness, and you have the start of the action in A Legacy of Spies. His protagonist is Peter Guillam, a longtime protégé of Smiley’s in the British Secret Service, a.k.a. the Circus, and long retired.
Guillam is white-haired now. He has hearing aids. He is hauled back to London to explain some of his long-ago actions, intelligence operations in which people close to him died, perhaps unnecessarily. The children of some of le Carré’s best-known characters have grown up and demand justice.
Guillam is forced to recall ancient events in interviews that recall interrogations, and to read newly found documents that bring the past rushing uncomfortably back.
The first page sets this novel’s disbelieving and Lear-like tone: “I am driven in age and bewilderment to set down, at whatever cost, the light and dark sides of my involvement in the affair.”
There is chaos in the present as well as in the past. Guillam is stalked by a deranged and grieving man. “I have a sense of fighting to the last man,” he tells us, “and the last man is me.”
Guillam carries dual passports; he is half-French and half-English. He is familiar to le Carré’s readers. Indeed, he played in a role in le Carré’s first novel.
A more salient thing about him is that he’s a sexy beast. (Benedict Cumberbatch, in a recent movie, played Guillam as a young man.) He is perhaps too sexy. Nearly every woman he comes into contact with, past and present, is leggy and wants to wrestle him into bed.
There’s a distant oink of male chauvinism in this tweedy novel, one that goes beyond establishing the sexual atmosphere of swinging ‘60s-era Britain.
At his farmhouse in Brittany, the elderly Guillam lives with Catherine, a much younger woman, and her 9-year-old daughter. Catherine has always been there; her parents and grandparents were tenants on the property.
We’re told by Guillam that “I have regarded her as my ward” after the death of her father, and “I watched her grow from infancy.” That Guillam sleeps with her after being in loco parentis isn’t just unlikely but a bit too Woody Allen for my tastes.
Le Carré is not of my generation but I have read him for long enough to understand how, for many readers, his characters are old friends—part of their mental furniture. There’s something moving about seeing him revive them so effortlessly, to see that the old magic still holds.
He thinks internationally but feels domestically. In an upside-down time, he appeals to comprehension rather than instinct. I might as well say it: to read this simmering novel is to come in from the cold.
 Dwight Garner, “George Smiley and Other Old Friends Return in John le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies,” in New York Times (August 28, 2017). A version of this review appears in print on August 29, 2017, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: “The Cold War Heats Up Again.”
 See Review: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ the quintessential spy tale at CNN entertainment.