A Legacy of Spies: Book Review
A Legacy of Spies is John le Carré’s latest novel, published in 2017. It’s a parallel story to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, within a modern-day framing story. The story examines how attitudes to Cold War spy operations have changed.
A Legacy of Spies: Logline
When a former spy for British Intelligence is sued by the children of the victims of a ruthless Cold War spy operation, he must defend himself, and the memory of his erstwhile colleagues, in a world where different values hold sway.
A Legacy of Spies: Plot Summary
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the present day. Peter Guillam is a former spy for ‘The Circus’ (MI6) and the protegé of the Circus’s ex-head, George Smiley. Guillam retired from the Circus many years ago and now lives in France. He receives a letter from the Circus, asking him to come to London to discuss an old case. When Guillam gets to London, he discovers that the children of Alec Lemas and Liz Gold are suing the Circus over the deaths of their parents – both of whom died as a result of ‘Operation Windfall’ in 1959 (for the story of Operation Windfall see The Spy Who Came In From the Cold). The Circus has no idea what happened because Guillam signed the files on the operation out and hid them.
Guillam leads the Circus’s investigators to the safe house where he hid the records of Operation Windfall. The files tell the story of the Circus’s Head of Station in Berlin, Alec Lemas. Lemas’s networks in East Germany collapsed and he suspected that a Russian mole in the Circus was responsible (the search for this mole is the subject of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy).
The files particularly focus on a British espionage network in East Germany called ‘Mayflower’ and one of its agents, codenamed ‘Tulip’. Tulip was the wife of a Stasi (East German Intelligence) officer. She was also having a, partly coerced, affair with a more senior Stasi official.
Lemas set Tulip up with spy equipment and she started to deliver intelligence material via her courier, Guillam. When Tulip’s husband discovered that she’d photographed some of his documents, Lemas decided to extract her. He entered East Germany, met Tulip, drove her to the Czech border and, eventually, they managed to get to the British Embassy in Prague. Guillam then flew to Prague to escort Tulip back to Paris. Guillam and Tulip become lovers in Prague.
Taking a break from the files, Guillam meets with Alec Lemas’s son, who wants a million euros to call off the court case. Liz Gold’s daughter though is an idealist and wants the Circus prosecuted, come what may. Guillam, not convinced that Lemas’s son has the power to stop the case, refuses his offer.
A few days after handing Tulip over in Paris, the Circus ordered Guillam to go to a safe house in the New Forest…
When [blackout]he got there, he discovered Tulip was dead, supposedly having committed suicide shortly after arrival. In fact, a Stasi agent, Mundt, murdered her and the staff caught him in the grounds while he was trying to escape. Smiley persuaded Mundt to become a double agent and sent him to infiltrate the Stasi. After Tulip’s death, Smiley asked Guillam to befriend Liz Gold, which he did. This enabled Smiley to set up Alec Lemas’s later meeting with Liz.[/blackout]
Guillam [blackout]has another confrontation with Alec Lemas’s son, who has a gun, starts trying to abduct him, seems to be on the verge of shooting him, but eventually collapses in tears.[/blackout]
Guillam [blackout]goes to see an old Circus colleague, who gives him enough information to track down Smiley. When Guillam finally manages to meet up with Smiley, Smiley says he will return to London and defend himself, and the Circus, in the forthcoming court case.[/blackout]
A Legacy of Spies: Analysis
A Legacy of Spies is largely an epistolary novel. The core of the book involves Peter Guillam reading through the files – which Le Carré reproduces verbatim on the page. The ‘official story’ in the files contrasts with Guillam’s own memories, but even Guillam only knows the parts of the story that he witnessed. The only people who knew the full story are Control (who died in the 1970s) and Smiley himself.
In a way, I enjoyed the story more for not being written in Le Carré’s typical literary fashion, which can become a bit heavy going at times. This is a quick, easy read, the most approachable Le Carré novel for a long time. But having said that, A Legacy of Spies isn’t written in the beautiful prose of most of Le Carré’s work and is, in the end, weaker for it.
I found it hard to suspend disbelief in A Legacy of Spies. One reason is that sixty years after the events of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold it’s unlikely that everyone involved is still alive.
In A Legacy of Spies, Le Carré describes Peter Guillam as eight in 1945, making him seventy-eight now. Far from impossible. So far so good. But, in Le Carré’s first novel, A Call for the Dead, published in 1961, he described Smiley as joining the Circus in 1926, while at university. That means he must have been born about 1905 – making him 112 in A Legacy of Spies!
In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy though, Le Carré altered things a bit, Smiley now joined the circus in 1937. Even on that reckoning he is over a hundred in A Legacy of Spies.
Shy and Retiring
Smiley seems to have spent most of his career in and out of retirement, having retired for the first time at the end of John Le Carré’s début novel, A Call for the Dead.
He was in retirement in A Murder of Quality, but somehow, back in the Circus in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. At the beginning of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy he was in enforced retirement. He returned to head the entire Circus in The Honourable Schoolboy, and retired for what surely must have been the last time after Smiley’s People.
Smiley’s last appearance, before A Legacy of Spies, was in 1990’s The Secret Pilgrim, where he was chair of a political committee overseeing the intelligence services.
The Safe House
Similarly, Le Carré asks us to believe that the safe house, used once for Operation Windfall, has just sat quietly on the books, staffed, but unused, since 1959.
I can buy the idea that the house would still be around, but unused? And with the housekeeper quietly looking after it for over half a century? Without any contact from the Circus? Like some kind of Japanese soldier holding out on a Pacific island long after the war is over?
For one thing, budgets just don’t work like that.
The real danger though with A Legacy of Spies is that Le Carré is effectively just showing us the back story to, and tying up some of the loose ends in, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
I hate to compare it to The Phantom Menace, but…
A fairer comparison is to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, which focusses on two minor characters from Hamlet, with appearances by the major characters. This type is story is called a parallel story.
Another example of a parallel story is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to, and a retelling of, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre from the point of view of Mr. Rochester’s first wife. Similarly, A Legacy of Spies is a prequel to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, but from the point of view of Peter Guillam.
Pretty much the entire cast from The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are also seen or mentioned: Smiley, Control, Bill Hayden, Smiley’s wife, Ann, Smiley’s nemesis, Karla, Jim Prideaux, Connie Sachs, Toby Esterhase. Even minor characters, like Inspector Mendel and Fawn, make appearances.
A Legacy of Spies is an idea for a novel that has a lot of potential. When I heard rumours that the story was about a retired Peter Guillam being recalled to defend the Cold War actions of The Circus and his hero, Smiley, I thought that was a novel that would be really interesting.
But, sadly, I don’t feel the novel delivered on those high expectations. I never really believed in the idea that Lemas and Liz Gold’s both had (previously unmentioned) children. I couldn’t understand why they were suing the Circus, or what they were suing it for. East German border guards murdered Lemas and Gold, so shouldn’t their children be suing Germany, if anyone?
One thing Le Carré has always delivered is terrific endings. His books often open slowly, even ponderously, but that’s to establish realistic, sympathetic characters. By the time the story gets going the reader really cares about their fate.
In this case though, the more interesting sections are towards the middle. The ending is truncated and doesn’t really deliver what it’s been promising. Smiley himself makes only a fleeting appearance before the whole novel fizzles out.
A Legacy of Spies: My Verdict
It’s not a Le Carré classic, but If you love The Spy Who Came In From the Cold then you’ll find it interesting.
Want to Read it?
If you’d like to discuss anything in my A Legacy of Spies review, please email me. Otherwise, please feel free to share it using the buttons below.