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Published On: Mon, Sep 11th, 2017

A Legacy Of Spies review: John le Carré’s touch was once subtler and surer


A Legacy Of Spies by John le Carré (Viking, £20)

Tubby, nondescript Smiley – so much more believable than James Bond – featured in eight novels by John le Carré.

After the last Smiley book, The Secret Pilgrim (1990), the author declared he was “heartily sick of the Cold War” and that Smiley and his colleagues had been “definitely put to rest”.

But now le Carré has decided to hop into a time machine and re-examine Smiley’s Cold War activities in a new novel that demands intimate knowledge of previous books, such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The novel starts close to the present day with Peter Guillam, Smiley’s loyal young sidekick in le Carré’s first book, Call For The Dead (1961), now enjoying a peaceful retirement in rural Brittany. Then he is summoned to his old service’s “shockingly ostentatious new headquarters” in London.

The service is facing legal action from the families of people killed long ago as a result of operations gone wrong. Guillam is one of those in the firing line for having used pretty unpleasant means to reach an honourable end. 

The novel starts splendidly with an extended scene in which Guillam tries to outwit the young service personnel as they interrogate him. There is still nobody better than le Carré at conveying the thrusts and feints of this sort of verbal fencing.

But the pace slackens as Guillam, preparing his legal case, starts to reminisce about operations in the 1950s and 1960s. Iconic characters reappear in flashback, but as faint karaoke versions of their old selves. We discover Guillam fell in love with an agent in East Germany but le Carré, as so often before, falls back on cliché when depicting a romantic relationship.

The climax comes as Guillam decides to track down Smiley and confront him with the immorality of what they did. But the denouement turns out to be a damp squib, with a rather laboured political message.

There is much to enjoy in this novel, not least finding out how old friends such as Smiley and Jim Prideaux, my favourite le Carré character, have fared in old age. But the constant harking back to the old masterpieces reminds us that le Carré’s touch was once subtler and surer.



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