Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carre

"I, who was taught from the cradle to deny, deny and deny again - taught by the very Service that is seeking to drag a confession out me?"
John le Carre, A Legacy of Spies (2017), p. 161.
This is an extraordinary lap of honour, almost a pastiche of le Carre by le Carre himself, the sort of thing in anyone else's hands we would call fan fiction.

It returns us to the world of the Circus and George Smiley, not seen since The Secret Pilgrim (1990), but it's really revisiting the events that led to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) - le Carre's third novel, and the one that made his name. Along the way, we catch up with characters and events from his two other most successful Circus novels - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) and Smiley's People (1979). In fact, since this new book is recounted by Smiley's loyal underling, Peter Guillam, I had Michael Jayston's voice in my head (he played Guillam in the BBC adaptations of those latter two novels; Benedict Cumberbatch played Guillam in the more recent Tinker Tailor film.)

A friend had read and enjoyed this new book without knowing any of this history. I'm now eager to reread those other books to see how well it all fits together. It feels seamless, the only glaring thing being Smiley himself - recruited as a spy to the Circus in 1928 or 1937, depending which book you refer to, but still alive and in good health whenever this new, modern-feeling book is set. It is very contemporary, and though the word "Brexit" isn't used, George tells us he is and always was a European, and is horrified by the idea of England on its own as a "citizen of nowhere".

Yet given the age Smiley must surely be, the only concession to the passing of time is that he no longer wears a suit. The one character to have died since we last visited this world is Smiley's nemesis Karla. Jim Prideaux is still working at the same school as he was in Tinker Tailor, more than 40 years ago.

The story sees Guillam called back to London because there's likely to be a parliamentary inquiry into the events of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. He is reticent, but slowly we unpick what happened - a little ahead of the investigators he is speaking to. There's a real sense of menace in the jovial lawyers who seem ready to hang Guillam out to dry, and in the character of Christoph - a man out of revenge. It's an absorbing read, full of well drawn characters and telling detail. Indulgent, but perfectly done.

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