A Legacy of Spies

Devoted readers of John le Carré know the character, Peter Guillam, as the staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley, the seemingly ordinary but brilliant agent of the British Secret Service, known as the Circus. Guillam assists Smiley in Le Carre’s breakthrough novel, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, and more prominently in the trio of novels (TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY; THE HONERABLE SCHOOL BOY; and SMILEY’S PEOPLE) where Smiley unmasks the Soviet mole deep within the Circus and then sets out to bring down Karla, his nemesis of Moscow Center

Now Guillam is the protagonist of le Carré’s latest novel, A LEGACY OF SPIES, and finds himself reliving his past, as well as that of his mentor Smiley and other high-ranking Circus agents.

Guillam is living out his retirement years at his family farm on the south coast of Brittany. One morning a letter from the Secret Service interrupts his routine. Guillam is order to immediately return to London and report to Circus’s new headquarters.

Upon his arrival Guillam is at once confronted by a duo of young Circus lawyers who ask about his involvement in Operation Windfall, a Circus mission mounted against East Germany during the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s and early 60s. Guillam intimately recalls Windfall and its tragic outcome, but pleads ignorant of any knowledge. The lawyers persist until Guillam admits his participation in the mission.

Guillam is then escorted to the safe house that was set up exclusively for Operation Windfall, known to the agents as the Stables. There he unearths the several hidden files of the case and is ordered to read each of them and report their accuracy to the lawyers. In the process Guillam relives the days of Windfall as reported in the files, as well as in his personal and private recollections of Smiley, their boss known only as Control, and the other agents who played various roles in the doomed mission.

The novel is presented in Guillam’s first-person narration as he recalls his abrupt return to the Circus to evoke a past he has long suppressed. Along the way we are treated to Guillam’s earliest days with the British Secret Service and how Smiley recruited the young assistant to become a full-time agent. Guillam’s voice is self-confident throughout, but drenched in weariness that colors both his recollections as well as his impressions of the Circus of today.

To reveal why the Circus is suddenly so interested in Operation Windfall after so many years would be a major spoiler. Suffice to say the reason demonstrates Le Carre’s accurate observation of the post-Cold War generation and their shift from concerns of political consequences to matters seemingly more urgent and ironically contemporary. The Circus Lawyers play out this reason with little or no memory of the Cold War and little patience for its justification.

The moral ambiguity of those who spy for a living – a hallmark of le Carré – is on full display as Guillam relives the events of the operation as reported in the files various reports and memos, and in his own personal memories of such individuals as Alex Leamas, Jim Prideaux, Control, and of course, George Smiley.

The sections devoted to the verbatim reports in the files are complex and often confusing. But readers are encouraged to make their way through the many and often overlapping events for the information they finally reveal.

The publisher is promoting this latest le Carré work as “the first Smiley novel in more than twenty-five years.” But while Smiley’s presence is felt throughout the novel, it really belongs to Peter Guillam. Smiley does, however, make a cameo appearance toward the conclusion, as Guillam presents Smiley with the reason why Windfall has suddenly reared its head, and Smiley openly questions why he and the other agents did what they did.

Prior familiarity with le Carré’s THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, and TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, are not essential to enjoying this new work, but readers who recall the events of these two earlier novels will feel a special resonance as they reunite with the players and events of the two earlier works.

At just under 265 pages, this new work is noticeably thinner than previous Le Carre novels. But after a career of many distinguished works, le Carré expertly knows how to load his pages with an economy of words and still include enough action and emotional power to drive novels twice its size.

Le Carré continues to define the realities of undercover intelligence work in contemporary spy fiction, A LEGACY OF SPIES is highly recommended as, among other things, a reminder of why his is such a unique and indispensible author. —Alan Cranis

Get it at Amazon.

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