Peter and the Wolves!….
Legacy Of Spies by John Le Carre
……… When you get to my age and look back in time, some memories are so vivid they feel like they happened yesterday. One such memory for me is the day when as a kid of about thirteen I borrowed a book from my local library – it was called ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’. I devoured that book and from that point on Alex Leamas, George Smiley and the Circus fascinated and delighted me and the work of John Le Carre has, quite simply, been among my favourite reading experiences ever since.
So when the chance came to go to Royal Festival Hall a couple of months ago and to not only listen to John Le Carre, but to listen to him talking about George Smiley, Peter Guillam and others, it was a no brainer for me. It was just wonderful listening to such a warm, engaging and bona-fide genius and at the end I got to buy a copy of his new novel Legacy of Spies which sees Le Carre return to Smiley, Guillam and what led to the death of Alec Leamas by the Berlin Wall all those years ago.
Walking back to Embankment Station with my new purchase hot in my sweaty-little Scottish palm I promised myself I’d wait before I dived in – I thought it best to read the reviews first just in case it didn’t live up to my massive expectations. I was wrong to doubt Le Carre – it’s the best thing he’s done in some time – though I should have doubted my own self-control because before the doors of the Circle line closed, the book was open and I’d started it and within seconds I was engrossed – so much so that when I next looked up I was at Farringdon….. three stations past my stop!!!
'If an author is lucky enough to be alive...... and so is their character......
…………..then there’s nothing you can do to stop them!’
John Le Carre at Royal Festival Hall September 2017
Living in retirement in his native Brittany, Peter Guillam, once George Smiley’s right-hand man, is now able to lead a more peaceful and gentle life – he may not quite be at peace with his memories and with his life at The Circus, but he seems to have been at least able to call a truce between himself and his former life as a spy. But that pleasant and sedate retirement is stopped in its tracks when he receives a letter from a seemingly banal source, asking him to return to London to discuss ‘ a matter in which you appeared to have played a significant role’. That ‘matter’ is the mission and subsequent deaths of Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold, which were told in that wonderful ‘Spy Who Came In From The Cold’. And it’s immediately clear that while Peter Guillam and his memories may have agreed a truce, there are others who’re not signatories to that truce and so that sort of peace pact Peter has with his memories is about to be broken.
On returning to London, Peter is advised that the past is snaking out its tendrils towards him in the form of court action against the Service by the children of both Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold. They are suing for negligence by the Service which led to their parents death in East Berlin and much more than the potential financial consequences of such a case the Service is much more concerned with what the publicity of the case and a pending MP Parliamentary Committee Enquiry will do to its reputation.
‘On reaching a battered sign saying Delassus, this being my mother’s family name, you turn up a pitted track, braking hard as you go over the potholes or, if you are Monsiuer Denis the postman, weaving defly between them at full speed: which was what he was doing this sunny morning in early August to the indignation of the chickens in the courtyard and the sublime indifference of Amoureuse, my beloved Irish Setter ………………………. As for me, from the moment Monsieur denis – alias le General thanks to his great height and supposed resemblance to President de Gaulle – had unwound himself from his yellow van and started towards the front steps, I knew at one glance that the letter he was grasping in his spindly hand was from the Circus’
Peter returns to London in line with the summons from the new regine at the Circus – things are different of course from the facade (described witheringly as ‘Spyland Beside The Thames’) to the new security entry arrangements, all high tech and automated voices, the youthfulness of staff, the seemingly random layout (as Guillam ruminates on how in his heyday all the biggest secrets were held on the top floor) and the noise – or lack of it – for gone is the random chatter and din of typewriters, telephones and file trolleys.
But one thing is as it ever was – when threatened from outside the overriding instinct of British intelligence is to protect itself and one of the key ways of doing that is the age-old technique of putting someone else in the firing line – and in this case it might well be Peter himself. When his interlocutors start, behind their classless accents and faux-friendly charm and bonhomie, Peter immediately realises that the challenge will be in explaining away the treacheries and intrigue that might have led to the discovery and death of Alec Leamas.
So it’s a book where Guillam delves into the past, delivering up in snippets and glipmses of memory, along with his own retrospective atampts to fit the pieces of the Alec Leamas jogsaw together, the back story of Spy Who Came In From The Cold is unravelled and laid bare – or at least as bare as anything every is when it’s the world of spies, George Smiley and the Circus.
‘Laura’s eye has lighted, not to my surprise, on the garish three-foot-by-two-foot wall chart hanging behind Control’s desk. Hideous? Not to my eyes. But life-threatening? Yes, indeed. Before I knew it I had grabbed the ash walking stick hanging over the back of Control’s chair and embarked on an explanation intended not to enlighten, but divert.
‘This section here, Laura…. is a home-made representation the Circus’s East European network, codenamed Mayflower….. Here we have the great man himself, source Mayflower, the network’s inspiration, founder, cut-out and hub, here is his sub-sources, and here, in descending order, are their sub-sources…..together with a capsule description of their product, its rating in the Whitehall market place, and our own in-house assessment of of the sources and sub-sources relaibility on a scale of one to ten.
With which I hung the stick back on its chair. But Laura didn’t appear quite as confused or diverted as I would have wished.’
Review of Legacy of Spies – The Guardian September 2017
Short promo video for the cinema screenigs that accompanied the launch of Legacy of Spies
Review of Legacy of Spies in The Scotsman – September 2017
Legacy of Spies is a terrific novel even if you know very little or nothing at all about the previous Circus and Smiley books in Spy Who Came In From The Cold and the Karla Trilogy of Tinker Tailor, Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. But if you do know those books and enjoyed them, then Legacy of Spies really is a must read.
It’s got all the hallmarks of classic Le Carre – it’s brilliantly plotted and the writing has a real swagger and panache about it. He does that in such a way that it neither detracts from the story or the pace of the novel and so those little details he adds, and the commentary he makes about life, politics and people through his characters and events are what lifts this way above the usual spy novel. The tension in the novel is beautifully understated – there’s no all-action denouement in Legacy of Spies but instead there’s this growing sense of the strands coming together and being unveiled. But of course as with any other Le Carre novel he also does that clever trick of satisfying your thirst for knowing who did what, and why, while at the same time leaving just enough loose ends to make you want and hope for more.
Legacy of Spies ties up a lot of the loose ends from those earlier novels and so if it is to be the last of the George Smiley novels, then it makes for a wonderfully fitting ending. But if Le Carre decides to give Guillam and Smiley and the rest one more outing, then I for one will be at the front of the queue eagerly awaiting its release – and with a much greater degree of self awareness next time so I won’t be deluding myself that I’ll be able to resist opening it on the Tube home! When a book is this good, and Legacy of Spies is this good, why deny myself the absolute joy that lies between its pages for more seconds than I need to!
Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre was published by the Viking imprint of Penguin Books in 2017. I bought my copy when I was lucky enough to be at Royal Festival Hall for the nationwide book launch event of this novel.
As you would expect, there are lots of reviews of Legacy of Spies out there in the media. Similarly there are a few blogs and e-zines that focus almost exclusively on spy novels and they also have reviews of the new Le Carre novel. So there’s lots to choose from, but in addition to the reviews that I posted links to above, the best review for me is John Banville’s in the Guardian – in some ways he doesn’t say much that the other reviews don’t say – but this is John Banville, a master-craftsman of the art of writing in my view, and so there’s something a bit special in his review that you can read here.