"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"--
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.
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.
(Adviso: don´t read unless you´ve read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, & Tinker, Tailor.)
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I preferred this book over the two by le Carré I remember well: Constant Gardener & Absolute Friends. (XII-17)