Great read, but do your (pleasurable) homework

legacy of spiesReview: ARCHIE HENDERSON

A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carré (Penguin/Viking)

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carré (Pan Macmillan)

A Call for the Dead, by John le Carré (Penguin)


George Smiley must be over a hundred, Peter Guillam well into his 80s and Jim Prideaux about a thousand years old. Jim was always old.

These three old secret service hands come together in John le Carré’s latest novel, A Legacy of Spies, where he returns to his old haunt, the Cold War. Or rather, the detritus of that part of his life and genre which produced his best works.

Guillam, this time, holds centre stage while Smiley and Prideaux have bit parts. Ghosts of Smiley and Guillam’s past have come back to haunt both spies in the form of the offspring of a dead agent and his innocent bystander/lover.

Alec Leamas, “the best British secret agent” Guillam had ever worked with was, if you recall from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, shot dead at the Berlin Wall, attempting to escape to the west. Liz Gold, his naïve and sentimental lover, copped it too.

That was in the early 60s, a time of the Cuban missile crisis, the threat of nuclear war and the height of the Cold War. Those deaths, it turned out in Spy, were part of a cynical plot by Control, the service’s hermit-like chief, (or perhaps Smiley) to protect a particularly useful if obnoxious source within the Stasi, East Germany’s grim communist successor to the Gestapo.

Legacy helps fill in the gaps that Spy might have left in our minds and wraps up the loose ends of what we now learn was called Operation Windfall. Legacy is a delight, but to fully enjoy it, the reader needs to do some homework.

Re-reading The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is necessary to fill in essential background before tackling Legacy. A Call for the Dead, Le Carré’s first novel, is not so essential, but it’s where the obnoxious source, Hans-Dieter Mundt, makes his brutal bow.

If you’re as obsessive about Le Carré, you might even want to watch the movie of Spy, starring Richard Burton. But don’t bother; Burton is miscast (as Le Carré himself believed, according to the Adam Sisman biography) and it’s a confusing mess unless you’ve read the book. Even worse, the bloke playing Smiley is irritating; thank God for Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People, the two brilliant BBC productions of what has become known as the Karla Trilogy (The Honourable Schoolboy, which follows Tinker Tailor, proved too expensive to film).

A new book, especially one about the Circus people (the Secret Service for those unfamiliar with Le Carré’s books, not acrobats and lion tamers), is a big event. A friend was boasting that he’d obtained an autographed copy and another, anal and with an eye for detail, picked out an error in Legacy: a character refers to using Tipp-Ex in 1957, but the typing-correction fluid was only patented in 1958 and manufactured as Tipp-Ex in 1965. I think it’s safe to overlook the latter.


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