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A Legacy of Spies

Review

A Legacy of Spies

When I saw that John le Carré, the most memorable of the Cold War-era spycraft authors, was revisiting George Smiley, the epitome of British spooks, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on A LEGACY OF SPIES. The first of the seven-novel series, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, cast the mold that would frame every spy-themed book, TV series and movie of those chilling times. What fan can forget the “brush-by” or the “bolt hole,” the stealthily folded newspaper? If the headline was up, it meant that a message lie in wait at the “drop”; if upside down, lay low and wait for another sign, which may be as subtle as a teaspoon left on a saucer. Or missing altogether.

Spycraft became a genre of its own, and fans of the era devoured each nuanced word, each sly nod, each ambiguous statement leading us, and the enemy, down the primrose path toward believability. Only to be later jolted by the cold, hard, bloody truth. And quite possibly death.

"George Smiley is omnipresent on every page without the need to show up. His fingerprints, as they say, are all over A LEGACY OF SPIES as Peter revisits his ghost --- or at least his mirage --- in the search for truth."

It is now a new century, and the glitzy White Hall district of London is the center of operations for England’s counter-intelligence affairs. Our ’60s spy heroes dubbed it the Circus, and it was where the action headed up by George Smiley and his right-hand man, Peter Guillam, took place. Peter is now 80 years old, enjoying a quiet and private retirement on his farm along the English Channel, when he receives an urgent and personally delivered summons from London. He instantly senses that it is from MI6 before he even opens the instruction to arrive tomorrow to pack a few clothes and that accommodations have been arranged. Something from his past association with MI6 has come up, and they can find nothing in the files.

They had been looking for George Smiley, who no one, not even Peter, has encountered in several years. Peter will have to do, since his virtual fingerprints are all over a case that is causing MI6 more than a bad case of heartburn. He arrives in London to be politely but persistently grilled by questions from VIPs in the modern spy corps about an action called Operation Windfall. Peter’s career has been one of bold-faced lying on behalf of the Circus, Great Britain and freedom. He’s still very adroit at obfuscation, and at 80 is capable of using age as an additional excuse for total disavowal of all knowledge of an action he recalls all too vividly.

Le Carré uses this inspired tool to relive those times via Peter’s pouring over old files, including reflections on the events that led to so much else. It also allows the characters to look back with more than a small amount of ambivalence given the nearly 50 years of modern history and insights into consequence of actions taken in very different times.

The legendary author had once commented that Alec Guinness had stolen George Smiley and that he would not be able to write about him again. Is A LEGACY OF SPIES a reflection of that concern? Not at all. But is he intuiting a new Cold War hovering on the horizon? Or is he just yearning to hang out with his old spook friends?

George Smiley is omnipresent on every page without the need to show up. His fingerprints, as they say, are all over A LEGACY OF SPIES as Peter revisits his ghost --- or at least his mirage --- in the search for truth. 

Reviewed by Roz Shea on September 22, 2017

A Legacy of Spies
by John le Carré

  • Publication Date: September 5, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Viking
  • ISBN-10: 0735225117
  • ISBN-13: 9780735225114