Review: A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

Legacy.jpgI opened A Legacy of Spies with a high sense of both anticipation and trepidation. A new book by John le Carré is always cause for celebration — at 85, who’s to say how many more novels we’ll be treated to by the genius writer — but that old saying, You can’t go home again, chimed in my ears when I learned the book was a sequel, of sorts — maybe “coda” is the better word — to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Which was exciting to learn, absolutely, but also terrifying. Because even though a bad sequel can’t (ostensibly) detract from the original work, it can taint it; can cast a shadow over your memory. The two are forever linked. Like when you think of Daniel Craig as James Bond, you think, Wow, Casino Royale and Skyfall were awesome, but yikes, remember Quantum of Solace and Spectre? Last thing I wanted was for A Legacy of Spies to tarnish my memory of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which, alongside Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, ranks as one of my all-time favourite spy novels. It doesn’t. And while it’s nowhere near as seminal as its predecessor, both in terms of its scope, plotting and execution, A Legacy of Spies adds depth to that earlier work, which readers mightn’t have needed, but will accept and devour feverishly.

In A Legacy of Spies, Peter Guillam — loyal acolyte of George Smiley — is retired and living in France, when he is abruptly summoned back to London. And when you’ve been out of the game as long as Guillam has, a summons can only signify one thing: trouble. In this instance, that trouble comes in the form of a couple of descendants of Cold War casualties from an operation detailed in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, who are threatening expensive and public legal action against British intelligence. To justify the events that occurred, Guillam sifts through old paperwork in order to reconstruct proceedings, thereby allowing le Carré to revisit long-dead characters. The plot bounces between the present day — an aged, but dogged Guillam — and the 1960s, when familiar characters were in their pomp.

As is always the case with le Carré’s work, A Legacy of Spies is best read scrupulously. Allow yourself to absorb the details, to savour the delectable prose, and appreciate its nuances. This isn’t a novel that will leave you breathless, but it still satisfies. It is intricate and intelligent, and if this truly marks the end of our time with George Smiley and his cohorts formerly of the Circus, it is a fitting conclusion. My only advice to interested readers: read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold first.

ISBN: 9780241308554
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 272
Imprint: Viking
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 28-Aug-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Call For the Dead by John le Carré

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Call For the Dead, published in 1961, was both John le Carré’s first novel, and the world’s introduction to the inimitable George Smiley, who returns later this year in A Legacy of Spies. Paced with  le Carré’s trademark assuredness, it’s less an espionage novel and more of a murder mystery, whose main players happen to work for British Intelligence, with a plot that revolves around East German spies inside Great Britain.

Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office civil servant, apparently commits suicide after a routine security check by Circus agent George Smiley. Certain erroneous details, however, identified by Smiley’s keen eye, bring Fennan’s fate into question. With  Inspector Mendel in tow, Smiley unravels a clandestine spy ring, the members of which will stop at nothing to keep their secrets safe.

Call For the Dead is perhaps John le Carré’s simplest story in terms of scope, but it still manages to highlight the inherent complexities of the life of a spy. Smiley is one of the unlikeliest heroes in espionage fiction, described here as a somewhat short and fat man, but it’s his tenacity and intelligence that shines through, as always. It’s no wonder le Carré decided to continue relaying the man’s adventures to his burgeoning readership. Having said that, the novel hasn’t aged especially well, and modern audiences might struggle with this one. Most readers will accept the now-outdated technology of the time, of course; that’s not the issue. It’s the structure of the book itself — an opening chapter, for example, that is nothing more than a history of George Smiley (it’s actually titled A Brief History of George Smiley!) — that occasionally grinds and clunks. Also, Call For the Dead ends with a summation of the core plot points, penned by Smiley, which is quaint, but something contemporary writers wouldn’t get away with so plainly. Le Carré’s thrillers are now celebrated for their nuance, and in that regard, Call For the Dead definitely has a “first book” vibe.

Nonetheless, re-reading Call For the Dead was a worthy exercise, reminding me of how much more elaborate and nuanced Le Carré’s novels later became. It will be interesting comparing this with A Legacy of Spies, surely the final Smiley thriller, and charting the immeasurable advancements of the world’s greatest writer of espionage fiction.

ISBN: 9780141198286
Format: Paperback
Pages: 160
Imprint: Penguin Classics
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Nov-2011
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré

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“What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”

Ladies and gentlemen: the words of Alec Leamas, the protagonist in John le Carré’s breakout novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which clarifies the stark reality of espionage, and reveals the essential callousness required of spies. If Fleming’s 007 novels enticed wannabe secret agents with their thrilling adventures set in fantastical locations, le Carré presents the flipside: this isn’t a life of luxury; martinis, fast cars and voluptuous women. Life as a Cold War spy required coldness, and a willingness to betray ones deepest desires and personal interests; oftentimes doing a bad thing for a supposed right reason, which was dictated by those above you. Fleming’s Bond novels were clean; hero against villain, good versus evil. There’s no such thing in le Carré’s fiction. His characters flourish and falter in a world of grey.

Leamas is a seasoned Intelligence Officer who has suffered an embarrassing defeat by his opposite number, Mundt: his entire East German network has collapsed, arrested or killed. Leamas knows his career is over; he has outlived his usefulness. After all, what value has an agent without assets? But his master, Control, has devised a daring scheme; one that would allow Leamas to take his revenge. There’s more to this audacious plot than meets the eye, of course: George Smiley is pulling the strings in the background; an ethereal figure who makes his presence known.

Le Carré’s plot zigzags wildly; allegiances form and disperse, and hidden motivations come to light as the narrative progresses. He is an expert at the bait-and-switch, and has constantly validated his status as the premiere espionage fiction writer over more than forty years. It was a real treat revisiting this gem. It deserves its Must Read tag.