One of the staples of John le Carré’s fiction is the mundane cruelty and regrettable-but-necessary collateral damage in which his spies trade. Every bit of intel comes at a cost. Le Carré has never shied away from that fact, and the central figures of his best works, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, are defined by their stiff upper lip in the face of it. Yes, the people caught in the gears of international intrigue — disproportionately women — are rather unfortunate, but chin up, old chap. There’s a Cold War to win.
A Legacy of Spies, the new book from the spymaster and the first to feature his signature creation, George Smiley, in a quarter century, is a moral retrying of some of le Carré’s most famous stories. (To specify which would be a spoiler, but brush up on the plots of his essential works before reading. Wikipedia will do.) The novel follows Smiley right-hand man Peter Guillam, most recently played by Benedict Cumberbatch in 2011’s Tinker, Tailor adaptation, as he’s called back to London from France to answer for past sins.
When Guillam arrives in London, he’s met with an MI6 he no longer recognizes. The Service is now housed in an eyesore along the Thames, staffed by delicate bureaucrats who are too young to remember the battles hard fought against Karla and Moscow Centre. These are the people who have some questions for Guillam, specifically relating to Windfall — a mission he says he doesn’t recall. The truth about Windfall drills into the morally murky core of the work Guillam and Smiley did during the Cold War, adding depth to the books that precede Legacy, and all of it is expertly spun as a nearly epistolary exploration into “lost” Circus files.
It’s a dangerous proposition whenever an aging artist decides to re-engage with her or his earlier beloved characters or themes. Here, le Carré has done something remarkable. In language as clever, clear, and intelligent as always, he has retroactively added even more nuance, emotion, and ambiguity to the high points of the spy genre, within a book that also works in itself. If there is one complaint to be had, it’s that newer initiates into the world of sad spies may be slightly adrift, though they’ll get a good story out of it (and undoubtedly want to know more, sending them back to the classics).
A Legacy of Spies functions best as a reward for loyal readers: This is for those of us who have sat with Smiley for hours as he pored over intel in an office where the blasted radiator is broken and loved every damn second of it. A-