A LEGACY OF SPIES
By John le Carre
Viking, $28, 264 pages
Although I don’t subscribe to John le Carre’s leftist worldview, I’ve been reading and enjoying his spy novels since I was a teenager in the 1960s.
I’m not fond of most of his post-Cold War novels, as his political and anti-American sentiments mar the stories for me, but I admire greatly his earlier novels, such as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” based on the notorious British spy and traitor Kim Philby, as well as “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.”
In his latest novel, “A Legacy of Spies,” his 24th, the 85-year-old author returns to the scene of the crimes, so to speak, from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and his other Cold War novels. His great character, the brilliant, bespectacled, physically frog-like master spy, George Smiley, appears in the novel, albeit briefly.
But Smiley is the center of conversation throughout the novel between former spy Peter Guillam and officials of the current-day British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6, and formally known as the “Circus” in Mr. Smiley’s day. (The old headquarters was located at Cambridge Circus in London).
Mr. le Carre has on several occasions in the past attacked the late thriller writer Ian Fleming, stating that his iconic character James Bond is a gangster rather than a spy. He and many of his admirers see the cerebral Smiley as the antithesis of the Bond action hero, yet Mr. le Carre himself has created a James Bond-like character in Peter Guillam
Guillam appears in the earlier novels as a young, handsome, tough-guy ladies’ man who heads up the “Scalphunters,” a group that handles the rough stuff for the Circus. Guillam is often at Smiley’s side in the early novels. (I’m an Ian Fleming aficionado — the Bond novels, not so much the films — which is probably why I’ve always liked Peter Guillam. And actor Michael Jayston, who portrayed Peter Guillam in the outstanding “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” TV miniseries, was once in the running for the role of James Bond).
Peter Guillam, now elderly and in retirement, is the central character in “A Legacy of Spies.” He is recalled to London by SIS headquarters to answer questions regarding the operation that resulted in the death of British intelligence officer Alec Leamas and his companion, Elizabeth Gold, who were shot and killed at the Berlin Wall in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” The grown children of the two are suing the SIS and intelligence officials have discovered that nearly all of the classified records of the operation were destroyed by Smiley, or by someone under his command. Guillam, perhaps?
“What follows is a truthful account, as best I am able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation, codenamed Windfall, that was mounted against the East German intelligence service (Stasi) in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, and resulted in the death of the best British secret agent I ever worked with, and of the innocent woman for whom he gave his life,” Peter Guillam tells us in the opening of the novel.
“A professional intelligence officer is no more immune to human feelings than the rest of mankind. What matters to him is the extent to which he is able to suppress them, whether in real time or, in my case, fifty years on. Until a couple of months ago, lying in bed at night in the remote farmstead in Brittany that is my home, listening to the honk of cattle and the bickering of hens, I resolutely fought off the accusing voices that from time to time attempted to disrupt my sleep. I was too young, I protested, I was too innocent, too naive, too junior. If you’re looking for scalps, I told them, go to those grand masters of deception, George Smiley and his master, Control. It was their refined cunning, I insisted, their devious, scholarly intellects, not mine, that delivered the triumph and the anguish that was Windfall.” The story then unfolds through Guillam’s narration, his reading of reports and through back-in-time passages that once again feature Mr. le Carre’s wonderful cast of characters, such as Philby-like Bill Hayden, Control, Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, Stasi killer Hans-Dieter Mundt, and of course, Peter Guillam and George Smiley.
Although I don’t care particularly for Mr. le Carre’s portrayal of moral ambiguity between the East and the Western intelligence services, or his cynical and bleak outlook, I enjoyed this novel.
“A Legacy of Spies” is a well-written, clever, suspenseful and interesting spy novel that Mr. le Carre’s old readers, as well as his new ones, will enjoy.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism