Book Review – A Legacy of Spies (2017)

There will be no war, but in the struggle for peace not a stone
will be left standing, as our Russian friends used to say.
– George Smiley

Author: John Le Carre
Publisher: Viking
Genre: Espionage
Reading Level: Adult
My Rating: 7 of 10

It has the feel of a farewell to an old friend.  That is probably the best way to describe John Le Carre’s novel A Legacy of Spies.  Returning to the characters and the world setting which launched his career as a novelist, Le Carre has woven together an entertaining though gut-rending tale of both memories and ignorance as the old spies of his early novels are confronted by modern adversaries; adversaries who benefited from the old spies’ sacrifices during the Cold War and yet have willfully or unintentionally chosen to be ignorant of the history and nature of the evil ideology these men fought to keep at bay.

The novel is written from the perspective of an elderly Peter Guillam, one of Le Carre’s first spies as introduced in his opening novel Call for the Dead.  Guillam has been summoned from retirement by the British Secret Service to answer to an inquiry by lawyers and members of Parliament as to his involvement in a costly espionage operation the British carried out in East Germany during the height of the Cold War.  In a complicated legal mire of threats, deceptions, extortion, ignorance, hatred and incompetence, Guillam finds himself recalling memories of old friendships, triumphs, tragedies and betrayals during his time in the British Secret Service.  As these memories are brought to the audience’s view, a larger story arc is formed which beautifully connects the events of several of Le Carre’s earlier novels and ties up many of the loose ends of those stories, giving the reader an air of finality as the tale comes to an end.

The novel’s style is as usual for Le Carre with plenty of emotion and character thoughts interlacing amongst the dialogue and action.  The moral dilemmas so common in the espionage world of Le Carre’s universe dominate the inner conflicts of the characters also, leading to the usual heightened suspense and tension.  A pleasant surprise, however, is the effective combination of the fast-pace which is a strength of Call for the Dead, with the flashback approach used with such great storytelling power in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  The combination of these two makes the novel a much easier read compared to some of Le Carre’s more long-winded novels such as The Honourable Schoolboy.

Long-time followers of Le Carre’s earlier works will be delighted to once again read about so many characters who have not been seen since Le Carre’s last true Cold War novel: The Secret Pilgrim.  George Smiley, Mendel, Control, Connie Sachs, Bill Haydon, Jim Prideaux, Percy Alleline, Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase, Oliver Lacon, Millie McCraig and even Alec Leamas, the famed protagonist of one of Le Carre’s most famous novels, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, all make memorable appearances in this novel.  The only notable absence from the lineup is Ned, the well-connected narrator from The Secret Pilgrim, whose career, as laid out in that book, seemed to parallel Smiley’s so closely.  The re-introduction of these older characters and the stories surrounding them makes the novel a very pleasant stroll down memory lane for those avid readers of Le Carre’s early novels.

The main underlying weakness of the novel is the ambiguity that Le Carre leaves his readers with regarding some of the dilemmas which the novel raises.  While Le Carre does excellent work bringing closure to the stories of the individual characters of his earlier works, the questions raised by the dilemmas are left, for the most part, unanswered and many readers may find that aspect disappointing.  In fairness to Le Carre, the unanswered dilemmas may have been intended as a way of showing how old spies, like old soldiers, are left with haunting memories and questions about the morality of their actions for the rest of their lives; a reality that too many seem to forget.  However, the unanswered questions still can potentially leave the reader feeling as if the closure has not truly happened or that they must come up with their own closure from the unenviable position of a relaxed armchair evaluator.

The other major weakness of the novel is the seeming lack of comprehension from all characters of what the West was truly defending in the Cold War.  While the protagonists clearly understand the nature of the evil they were fighting in the Communist ideology whereas the antagonists do not, the protagonists seem to have no true ideological notion of what they sought to protect.  Sadly this should not come as a surprise considering the dismissal of “Western Values” that so many of Le Carre’s characters profess in his earlier books and the cynicism which the espionage industry seems to instill in it’s own employees.  However, for those scholars and soldiers of the Cold War who do understand what was (and still is) being defended in the titanic struggle against the atheistic monster of Communism, this lack of comprehension on the part of these fictional characters who personified the heroic struggle of the common foot soldiers of the Cold War, will certainly instill a sense of sadness.  A type of sadness which might be found among believers in law and order if Sherlock Holmes or Columbo were to be unable to explain why murder is wrong.

Despite these weaknesses, A Legacy of Spies is still a most excellent read, though best left to adults due to certain situations and scenes which are certainly not for the eyes and imaginations of teens or younger children.  For those who lament the willful or unintended ignorance of the people of the 21st Century towards these heroes and their struggle, this novel will strike a chord.  A chord of gratitude and a desire to not let the true story of that struggle fade from our memories.

© 2017 Grant Dahl & On This Terrestrial Ball. All rights reserved. This material may not be re-published, re-broadcast, re-written or re-distributed without permission from the author of this piece.