A LEGACY OF SPIES
John LeCarré (www.johnlecarre.com)
Penguin Viking (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)
Living out his retirement on the family farm in Brittany, Peter Guillam is surprised when he receives a summons from his old employer, Britain’s Secret Service, better known as the Circus. An old case – the case that drove Guillam’s boss, George Smiley, into retirement in the early 1960s – has come back to haunt the Circus, and Guillam is to be offered as sacrificial lamb, to appease the children of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, who are looking for compensation. As Guillam works through the archives, and compares the official record to his own memories of the operation, he finds himself confronted time and again by a single question: where is Smiley, the brains behind Windfall, and the man to whom a much younger Peter Guillam once reported?
John LeCarré’s much-hyped new novel takes the reader back into the world of espionage that he created in his 1961 debut, Call for the Dead and, in fact, re-examines the stories of some of the characters from that novel, and from its follow-up, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. At the centre of the story, we find Peter Guillam, once George Smiley’s right-hand man, now an ageing retiree living the quiet life in rural France. A summons brings him to London and the headquarters of British Secret Service, still known affectionately as the Circus, despite the fact that the offices on Cambridge Circus have long since been replaced by the behemoth in Vauxhall. What he encounters is a Service that has changed almost beyond recognition from the Cold War institution to whom he gave his formative years.
He has been called to give account of Operation Windfall, and the subsequent deaths of Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold in East Berlin, events which are described in LeCarré’s earliest Circus novels. Guillam’s neck, it seems, is on the line, the Service attempting to respond to a lawsuit from the children of the British spies in question. As he works through documents that are half a century old, Guillam’s first-person narrative allows him to share the true story with the reader, and we watch, engrossed, as he attempts to keep the official narrative and the true version of events separate after so long out of the game.
LeCarré presents the story as a series of flashbacks, alternating between Guillam the octogenarian and the much younger Guillam who was up to his neck in the operations in question. What we find are two completely different worlds, and two completely different versions of the Circus – this new, accountable Service, run by civilians and lawyers, against a much grittier organisation, small groups of men who met in dark, smoke-filled rooms, their destinies decided by the whim of Control and the operational nous of George Smiley. Guillam, despite his age and lack of practice, still finds that tradecraft comes as second nature, and it’s interesting to watch as he runs rings around his modern-day counterparts.
George Smiley, the indisputable star of LeCarré’s Circus novels, is conspicuous for much of the book by his absence. Why, we wonder along with Guillam, is he not here answering these questions? Is he dead? Has the Circus lost track of him? If Guillam still has the touch, we discover, then Smiley is leaps and bounds beyond even him. But we relish the brief glimpses we catch of him, regardless of time period, the chance to revisit with one of spy fiction’s most iconic and enduring characters.
I am a relative newcomer to the world of George Smiley, having only read his first two novels thus far, so I suspect I will be missing much of the history here. My knowledge of Operation Windfall and the fate of Alec Leamas are enough to give me a foothold in A Legacy of Spies that allowed me to enjoy the story. It’s a dark and gritty story, as we might expect from LeCarré, though one shot through with a dry humour that comes mainly from watching a man from a different time attempting to navigate the world of modern espionage. It’s a fitting closing chapter to the author’s long-running series, and shows that LeCarré is as sharp as ever, a writer who is still able to draw readers fully into the story and the world that it inhabits.
Not a book for the virgin John LeCarré reader, A Legacy of Spies requires some knowledge of the books that have come before, though not necessarily all. I have no doubt that long-time readers of LeCarré’s work will have taken more away from the story than I did with my more limited exposure to his novels, but there is plenty here for even the most casual reader of his work. Complex and engaging, it’s a fine addition to this long-running series, and one that should be on the radar of any fan of fine espionage fiction.