An elderly man is summoned back to London. The spies’ old headquarters is long gone. Now MI6 is based in its “shockingly ostentatious new headquarters—Spyland Beside the Thames”.
Old men look back. Last year John le Carré wrote his own memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, a companion and reply to Adam Sisman’s major biography.
So A Legacy of Spies returns to characters first encountered in his 1961 debut, Call for the Dead—George Smiley and Peter Guillam.
The new novel is an attempt to recalibrate the book that made him famous, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). Le Carré takes a le Carré classic and tinkers with it, and tailors it into something different.
In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Alec Leamas, a burned-out agent, and Liz Gold, a young British communist, die climbing the Berlin Wall.
Leamas thinks he is bringing down a former Nazi in the East German secret service. The Nazi is already working for the British, and the real target is a Jewish man who might expose him.
Now we learn crucial material was withheld from us. The new novel is both a prequel and a sequel.
There are deft descriptions and character sketches. Variations in tone carry vast dramatic weight.
And no writer is better at turning the act of two people talking politely to each other across a desk into a blood sport.
The main plot strand is simple. It emerges that Liz Gold and Leamas had children. Those children are about to sue MI6.
There is a bit of strained philosophical worrying, “Who will atone for our father’s sins, even if they weren’t sins at the time?” And “Today’s blameless generation versus your guilty one.”
The book is targeted at le Carre’s most loyal readers. Guillam eventually traces old Smiley down, as he asks himself, “Were we simply suffering from the incurable English disease of needing to play the world’s game when we weren’t world players anymore?”
Oddly there are numerous discrepancies between the earlier books and this one—not all useful or needed. Most are the type that will be spotted by the readers this book is aimed at.
And perhaps this is one more final tour of the ageing band. It is a joy to read le Carré tightening his grip on his own legacy.