The consummate British spy George Smiley originally appeared in 1961 in John le Carré‘s Call for the Dead, his first novel. The last time he was a central character was 1979 in Smiley’s People, nearly forty years ago. (His most recent appearance, but only as a supporting character, was in The Secret Pilgrim, published in 1990.) Now, decades later, Smiley surfaces again in the background in le Carré’s twenty-fourth novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017). Given the author’s six-decade career as a novelist, the decade he had spent as an intelligence officer for both MI6 and MI5, and the worldwide popularity of his work, Smiley’s reappearance in 2017 is a major event in the publishing world. And, luckily, A Legacy of Spies is worth all the fuss.
The Cold War reexamined
Decades earlier, late in the 1950s and early in the 60s, Peter Guillam had served as a young MI6 officer under the legendary George Smiley, then serving one step below Control as “Head of Covert.” Smiley and Control had involved him in a spectacularly devious operation named Windfall that targeted East Germany’s Stasi.
A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Now, many years later, Guillam is an old man, retired to the family farm in Brittany. An urgent summons calls him to London, where he learns that he and Smiley have been sued by the children of two people who fell victim to that old operation—and, worse, Members of Parliament are threatening an investigation that has the potential to cause great damage not just to them personally but to the Secret Intelligence Service as a whole. Peter is sequestered in a run-down safe house and interrogated by an unpleasant pair of officers who are convinced that he and Smiley were responsible for the two deaths and for causing Windfall to fail in a disastrous fashion.
Complex and believable characters, palpable suspense
The action rapidly shifts back and forth from Peter’s recollections of Windfall and the hostile questioning he faces years later, illuminated by official documents that come to light in the files of MI6 as well as the Stasi. At the age of 85, le Carré has lost none of his considerable writing skill. His characters leap off the page, fully fleshed. Suspense builds steadily as the case against Peter grows ever stronger. And, in dialogue as well as memory, the ambiguous morality of the espionage game comes across just as clearly as it did in the novels le Carré wrote during the Cold War. A Legacy of Spies is a worthy successor to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the breakthrough bestseller that established the author as the premier spy novelist of the last half-century.
For additional reading
For my review of other recent le Carré spy novels, see John Carre’s latest, about anti-terrorism, is brilliant and John Le Carre on British espionage at the end of the Cold War.
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