A Legacy of Spies: A novel

by John Le Carré

Hardcover, 2017


Checked out
Due May 25, 2018



New York, New York : Viking, [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"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member maneekuhi
I think my Le Carre reading experience might be helpful to you in understanding where I'm coming from re some of my comments below. "A Legacy of Spies" by my count is Le Carre's 25th book; I have read at least 14 of them. My first was "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" in the early 70s. It blew me away - I fell in love with Smiley, with spies, with spy fiction, with MI6, Connie Sacks, Control, Britain. I grabbed "The Honourable (note the "u") Schoolboy" and "Smiley's People" as soon as they hit the bookshelves and devoured them, completing what I refer to as the George Smiley trilogy. George is a minor character in a few other Le Carre's, including the subject one. Somewhere along the line while waiting for "Schoolboy" or "People" I read TSWCIFTC, aka "The Spy Who Came In from the Cold". Most critics hail it as Le Carre's greatest; not me. It's second place but a very, very close second. (and a great movie with Burton as Leamus).

Then came "The Little Drummer Girl". What a disappointment! The plot was dull, there was no tension, the protagonist was incredibly uninteresting. Then "A Perfect Spy". Not much better. A lot of critics agree with me about "Drummer" but most were much kinder toward succeeding books. Not me. To me, none of the later books came close to the four mentioned above. But I kept reading Le Carre. Then I skipped a number, came back to him for a few new ones but then didn't read Le Carre again during the five or six years preceding "Legacy", released in September 2017. Why the difference in perception? I think the critics have been heavily swayed over the years by Le Carre's masterful prose. It has always been excellent and I believe it brought him a lot of forgiveness for dull stories. But there was something else that turned me off over the years. Each new book seemed to echo an angrier and crankier Le Carre. His stories grew darker and gloomier. There was a ribbon of these emotions even in the early books, note Leamus's speech to Liz in the closing pages of "Spy Who", but it kept getting heavier and heavier over the years; he seemed mad at the world. And particularly at the USA. Reading Le Carre, I have often wondered if this dates back to WWll years and the beginnings of an emerging superpower and the simultaneous decline of an empire. Perhaps a stretch.

I was rather excited about "Legacy" when I first heard of its impending release several weeks ago. I understood it was to be centered around events dealing with "Spy Who" and one of Smiley's team in particular, Peter Guillam. I had some misgivings. I thought "Spy Who" was perfect and I didn't want it tampered with. I had nightmares that it would be another "To Kill A Mockingbird II" or "Gone With the Wind II" and who would want to see that done to yet another classic.

The plot is a fairly simple one - the Service is being sued by Leamus's son and by Liz's daughter and is preparing for trial. It is many years after the events of "Spy Who" and many of the involved parties are dead or retired or just missing. Files are gone, some may have been stolen. Peter? Guillam is living in France with a younger woman and her daughter. He receives a letter from his former betters beckoning him back to London. He is interviewed and interviewed. Sometimes he tells the truth. New facts emerge, and there are a number of new twists, small ones. Doubt is cast on Liz's role in the original incident. Why? Peter renews some old acquaintances. He must find George, but who will help him?

The story just seems to end. No big climax at the end, not unusual for Le Carre, especially since "Spy Who". I had hoped this might become the fifth great LeCarre story; it isn't. I'm not sure such lawsuits would be heard by a court either in the US or Britain - couldn't find any on the web. More than anything I am curious why Le Carre wrote this story.....

But I am thankful for the four books of his I love and have read again and again. They also turned me on to a genre, leading me to many other great authors and books - Robert Littell, Len Deighton, John Lawton among others. He has given me many wonderful moments and I appreciate that.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
In a series of eight previous books, John le Carré created a world of spies who fought the Cold War with grit, determination, an occasional lapse of morals, and a genuine regret for those lapses. He also created a wonderful cast of characters, most especially George Smiley, but quite a few others who populate Britain’s “Circus,” the Directorate of Military Intelligence or MI6, analogous to the U.S. CIA. Le Carré's ninth book in the series, A Legacy of Spies, is no disappointment.

Le Carré’s reputation was made with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963. This latest book is something of a retelling of the earlier work, but from the point of view of Peter Guillam, Smiley’s faithful assistant. In fact, the second book is set several decades later than The Spy. The British government is being sued by the descendants of the agents who were sent to their deaths in the earlier book. Guillam is a reluctant witness to the events that are the basis of the lawsuit. Le Carré cleverly lets Guillam tell the reader what he says to attorneys for the plaintiffs and for the government, but he often does not tell the truth.

George Smiley appears only briefly, but his reputation and aura linger in the background throughout the story. Perhaps Smiley should not play too important a role because if the author were entirely consistent with his earlier works Smiley would be about 113 years old!

Evaluation: Le Carré is a master of English prose, and even though this is a spy novel, it is also excellent literature.

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LibraryThing member thiscatsabroad
Loved, loved, loved, loved, loved.
(Adviso: don´t read unless you´ve read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, & Tinker, Tailor.)
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
John le Carre is widely acknowledged as one of the best writers of spy fiction, though I feel that this rather misses the point. He is, quite simply, one of the finest novelists, in any genre. His ability to create a cast of entirely plausible characters engaged in intricate yet utterly credible plots seems limitless. In this latest novel, much heralded by critics and press, he returns to some of his most enduring and popular characters. A Legacy of Spies is narrated by Peter Guillam, George Smiley’s right hand man from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which is, after all, possibly the greatest spy story of them all. Le Carre’s insights into the secret world are as sharp and comprehensive as ever, and the story gleams with his instantly recognisable, though never successfully imitated, dialogue, and a smattering of his socially dysfunctional characters. I presume that the author must now be well into his eighties, but his observations remain as sharp as ever, and while there is an air of nostalgia throughout the book, his setting utterly contemporary.

Now retired and living off his pension on his family’s small farm holding in Brittany, Guillam is surprised to be contacted by his former employers and summoned to London. The contemporary Secret Service has grown sensitive to changing attitudes among both their political masters and the general public, and finds itself operating in a culture in which the Freedom of Information Act, and intense media scrutiny are key factors. In this climate, the Service now finds itself the subject of a civil action arising from the ‘collateral damage’ of an operation it mounted some forty years ago. Being one of the few principal characters still around and contactable, Guillam seems to be prime candidate to be scapegoat.

As a civil servant myself, I recognise the prevailing official view that, if something isn’t documented in the case files, then (officially) it didn’t happen. Guillam is persuaded to read through the (significantly filleted) files covering a couple of old operations, and is grilled, in Devil’s Advocate mode, by the Service’s lawyers. Having embarked upon this exercise, Guillam is overwhelmed with his own memories of the operations under review, many of which are markedly in conflict with the official version as recounted by the files.

His memories flit around a host of characters that have featured in previous novels, and there are many engaging vignettes and fleeting references that will chime with the attentive reader (Guillam’s former flautist lover, for example). There is, however, no requirement to have read any of the earlier books. This operates perfectly well as a standalone novel, as well as being a companion volume to the earlier novels featuring George Smiley. Indeed, I am almost now seriously considering going back to reread the whole Smiley canon.

Another dazzling work from an author who is still at the top of his game, more than fifty years after his first astounding successes.
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LibraryThing member gmmartz
I'd give John LeCarre's 'A Legacy of Spies' 6 stars if I could. The acknowledged master of the genre brings it all home with a novel that ranks among his best. I don't know if he intends it to be his swan song, but if so it's a great one.

If you're familiar with LeCarre's 'Smiley' spy thrillers, you'll recognize the characters in 'Legacy', which serves as both a backstory and sequel to 'The Spy Who Came In From the Cold' & 'Tinker, Tailor....'. In Legacy, children of characters killed during an operation depicted in his previous books are suing the British intelligence services and one of Smiley's long-retired lieutenants is called in to London to be debriefed by the current group of spies who view him and the 'old ways' with disdain. He quickly surmises that he's being hung out to dry. He's the narrator.

The story of the operation that's under the microscope is told via flashbacks in the form of notes and other written artifacts explained by the narrator. As his debriefing becomes increasingly contentious, he reminisces about his career, actions, other characters, loves, etc., while also plotting how to protect himself and others close to him. It's a great way to tell the story. In the past, I've had problems deciphering the sometimes incomprehensible Brit colloquialisms that LeCarre tends to use, but the artifacts and their explanations are much clearer.

What continues to fascinate me about LeCarre's work is his intricate plotting of the 'game within the game within the game....etc.' that Smiley and his group performed. I won't go into how it all turns out, but as with all of his work there isn't shoot 'me up violence, car chases, or explosions at the conclusion . There's an ending that's logical with enough twists and turns to make an experienced reader of his work say 'hmmm' to himself several times. The writing as always is superb, the dialogue as well, the tradecraft spot-on, and the plot inventive and satisfying. It's LeCarre wrapping things up and it's great.
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LibraryThing member annbury
This is not the master's best. In fact, I did not even know how the book ends and I want this clarity. Peter Guillam, who worked with Smiley to bring down Haydon in Tinker, Tailor, is sort of happily retired on his 199 acre farm in
Brittany, when he is summoned to London to aid the Circus in defending a lawsuit from Alec Leamas's son and Liz
Gokd's daughter that the circus ended deliberately the lives of spies who were in 'the Spy Who Came in from the Cold. There is a lot of old Circus bullshit and nonsense and Smiley is pissed off big time. At the end of the book i did not care,

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LibraryThing member Doondeck
Wonderfully written with a typical Le Carré convoluted narrative. But great to revisit old friends from the Circus.
LibraryThing member sleahey
This novel revisits some of the events of Le Carre's earlier works about George Smiley and the complex operations of British spydom during the Cold War. The legality and morality of the events we may have already read about are called into question by the new bureaucrats in British Intelligence. As a result, Peter Guillam is brought out of retirement to answer for the actions that he and his colleagues participated in.… (more)
LibraryThing member antao
The most impressive aspect is the self-examination, described late in the story. Was all the effort poured into Cold War intelligence work worth it? Did it stop wars? Did we do it because they did? Or was it a case of politicians wanting to thin they are “one up” on the other fellow? And his European outlook is so refreshing. Reminds me of the heyday of Robert Maxwell’s newspaper, The European”. Maxwell’s story is somehow akin to the world of Mr. Smiley, but will probably never be told.

What’s all this guff about him not being an ‘artist’ and ‘at its best, operates at a high literary level?’

When is the poor man to be rid of snarky comments? Possibly the best policy is to have a journalist review him, rather than the rat pack of other, less successful, writers. Le Carré has earned the right to be gloriously appreciated without the endlessly snide bollocks debate about genre writing.

Is there any clue as the year in which this book is set? Because if it is set in 2017 (or thereabouts) George Smiley would be well over 100.

It is clear from Le Carré’s earliest novels that Smiley had left “his unimpressive school” in the 1920s and been recruited, while at his “unimpressive Oxford College” by the “Overseas Committee for Academic Research” on “a sweet July morning in 1928.” As such I’d be expecting George to be celebrating his 110th birthday about now. Perhaps Peter Guillam, who must be well into his 80s, merely imagined his old colleague – the way old people have conversations with the dearly departed dead, because they seem more real than those who are left alive. Le Carré employs two layers of flashback to get us into the appropriate time period.

If you’re into Spy Fiction. read the rest of this review on my blog.
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LibraryThing member diana.hauser
There is one word to describe John Le Carre’s book, A LEGACY OF SPIES.
That word is PERFECTION.
An extra, added bonus was that as I read, I kept referring to the recent movie, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It was very satisfying to read A LEGACY OF SPIES and have the character’s images be present in my mind - a 3-D book.… (more)
LibraryThing member jwrudn
Peter Guiliam a former British spy now retired in Brittany is summoned back to London by the British Secret Service. They seek to extract from Peter details of a murky operation during the cold war to protect a source. But was he a source or a double agent? The operation ended badly with a British spy and his female companion being shot at the Wall trying to escape. Now the son of the agent and daughter of his companion are threatening to sue the service which would expose all sorts of dirt to the public and ministries.

Readers of A Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy will welcome back many characters. A Legacy of Spies fills in a back story of these two novels and shares their moral ambiguity. As usual LeCarre provides sharp portraits of the characters and writes convincingly of spy craft.
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LibraryThing member camharlow2
In another absorbing and gripping novel, full pf the moral ambiguity that we have come to expect, John le Carre returns to the story of his breakthrough book ‘The spy who came in from the cold’. Here, many years later, after retiring from the secret service, Peter Guillam is recalled to face the prospect of criminal charges and a parliamentary inquiry into the deaths of Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold, that are recounted in that novel. To help to rebuff these charges and those against the secret service, Guillam is given access to the files of the case and is also questioned by the secret service legal team.
As he delves into the files, he recalls his own memories of the events, but also tries to avoid revealing the whole story that he knows to the team. But there is a question mark as to whether he really knows the complete story or whether that can only be told by his absent boss of the time, George Smiley.
In all, it makes for a wonderful way of bringing their careers to a full circle, in a delightfully unmissable tale.
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LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
Le Carré is 85 and appears to be at the height of his powers. Amazing.

While this novel is set 50 years after The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (I think...when this novel takes place is hazy...I think it's present day, but that would make Smiley over 100 in his cameo), it is the finest prequel I've ever read. Le Carré effortlessly weaves new details into an old story, every new idea works perfectly, and I think he manages to give a handful of old spies their humanity back in some small way.… (more)
LibraryThing member capewood
If you've not read john Le Carre, then you should probably leave this alone. If you want to get into him with this book, either read "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" or see the excellent Richard Burton movie first.

Le Carre's getting old and so are his characters. It's a long time since the Cold War ended and the veterans of that war (the George Smileys and the Peter Guilliams) are not living the lives of revered veterans but are old bitter men, living with the guilt of the things they did in the shadows of that war and wondering what they did those things for. Did their actions bring about the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of Russia, or are they just ineffectual footnotes to history?

Guilliam is brought out of retirement back to London to face accusations about the events depicted in "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" and other early Le Carre novels. It seems The Service is being sued by the grown up children of the dead agents and the current Service wants to know what really happened. Le Carre uses Guilliam's memories and old memoranda to try and make sense of it all.

I very much liked this book, as I like most of Le Carre's work, but I'm afraid the ending left me puzzled. Not so much because I didn't understand it but because the story didn't really have a resolution. But maybe that's Le Carre is trying to say. For these sad characters who gave their lives, for what, "For England?" as Smiley says, maybe there is no resolution.
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LibraryThing member viking2917
While I enjoyed it, and appreciated revisiting with Leamas and Guillam and Smiley, I didn't quite see why he went back for this story as what is perhaps his last novel. It felt a bit anti-climactic. Still, if you're a LeCarre fan it's a must read.
LibraryThing member MeisterPfriem
The legacy of the Cold War (only the Cold War?): after 40 or more years the past catches up with Smiley’s ’loyal foot soldier’ Peter. The aim justifies the means. Collateral damage? To be regretted, surely, but thats how it is. - The seediness of it all. Was it worth it? And for what?

I preferred this book over the two by le Carré I remember well: Constant Gardener & Absolute Friends. (XII-17)… (more)



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