Review: Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies – George Smiley, a dark past and some Brexit fears

Master spy Smiley looms large in trademark tale of double-cross, murder and deceit as the author forces readers to confront cold war deeds and question the merit of a British exit from Europe

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 September, 2017, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 September, 2017, 8:03pm

A Legacy of Spies

by John le Carré


3.5 stars

John le Carré’s newest novel brings back the man who is perhaps le Carre’s most famous of spies, George Smiley, though mostly in name and recollection. Smiley is missing in action from the present in the story, but his influence is powerful and pervasive in the story’s past.

The cast of A Legacy of Spies is filled with characters from earlier Smiley books such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as readers revisit the cold war of East Berlin in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Smiley acolyte Peter Guillam is forced into becoming our narrator as the modern British Secret Service is threatened with legal action over alleged past misdeeds.

Guillam tells the tale of spies crossed and doubled-crossed, of spies murdered and rescued, and of deceit within his own Circus, as the spy shop was then known. He recalls his own involvement in Operation Windfall, and the reader is left to work out how much of Guillam’s confession is deception, intended to mislead his friendly interrogators, and how much he was himself misled by his mentor, Smiley.

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The plot revolves around a series of intelligence sources providing information about the Stasi, the East German Intelligence Service. One source escapes the Stasi net but is later betrayed and another agent is turned to the British side before also being discovered.

The British try to protect their information flow, all the while working under the uncertainty of a spy operating among their own ranks. How do you save your spies when you have a mole within your own service? To paraphrase the old intelligence saying, “Who watches the watchers?”, the reader is left to wonder who deceives the deceivers?

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Le Carré has the future of England and of Europe on his mind while telling this tale. Real sacrifices were made during the cold war, to go along with the fictional ones of A Legacy of Spies.

He forces readers to confront the past, and with it our notions of past motivations and deeds, but at the same time has a focus on the present state of Britain and its future. Le Carré seems to be railing against Brexit in this novel. Those sacrifices weren’t made in the name of Britain alone but for all of Europe, for the West.

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“If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still,” says Smiley to Guillam as he recalls his motivations. A Legacy of Spies recollects le Carré’s legacy as a master spy novelist – the book has a nostalgic feel to it – and the characters’ presence is comforting, even if the lessons within are not.

With each new novel, le Carré continues to shine a light on the dark and fascinating world of spies.