A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

A Legacy of Spies (George Smiley) by John le Carré


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The undisputed master returns with a riveting new book--his first Smiley novel in more than twenty-five years

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A Legacy of Spies
by John le Carré
Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is living out his old age on the family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, and involved such characters as Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, George Smiley and Peter Guillam himself, are to be scrutinized by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications.

Interweaving past with present so that each may tell its own intense story, John le Carre has spun a single plot as ingenious and thrilling as the two predecessors on which it looks back: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In a story resonating with tension, humor and moral ambivalence, le Carre and his narrator Peter Guillam present the reader with a legacy of unforgettable characters old and new.

“Did I fuck her? No, I bloody well didn’t. I made mute, frenzied love to her in pitch darkness for six life-altering hours, in an explosion of tension and lust between two bodies that had desired each other from birth and had only the night to live.”

“The classified cat watches from the kitchen window.”






 

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’We were wondering, you see,’ he said in a faraway voice, ‘whether you’d ever considered signing up with us on a more regular basis? People who have worked on the outside for us don’t always fit well on the inside. But in your case, we think you might. We don’t pay a lot, and careers tend to be interrupted. But we do feel it’s an important job, as long as one cares about the end, and not too much about the means.’
Peter Guillam has been long retired from the British Secret Service (the Circus) to his French estate. He is reasonably contented. He has peace and quiet and a beautiful, much younger, French girl, who is friendly enough to share his bed.

And then the letter from his former bosses arrives summoning him to London.

After all these years, it probably isn’t something pleasant they want to discuss, so the question is, does he make a run for it, or does he play nice and show up?

Curiosity wins out over his better judgement. Once a spy, always a spy; he hopes he is agile enough to stay one step ahead of them.

They ask the sphincter tightening questions. They ask the questions that make his stomach do flip flops. The question that Peter has is, where is his old boss, George Smiley? He is the only man with all the answers, but Peter, his #1, knows way more than what he can reveal.

I do believe in oversight, but I get nervous when people are parsing down a series of events that happened during WW2 or the Cold War (or any time in history) and deciding, with the benefit of the perceptions of history, if someone did the right thing, possibly under duress, without the benefit of foresight or hindsight, and wth just the slender facts at their disposal at the time.

People died. Two in particular were Alec Leamas (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) and his girlfriend, Catherine Gold, at the base of the Berlin Wall. Could it have been avoided? ”The odious and corrupt counter-revolutionary agitator Leamas was a known degenerate, a drunken bourgeois opportunist, liar, womanizer, thug, obsessed by money and a hatred of progress.”

And a man who died in the service of his country. Not all patriots are choirboys.

It seems that some descendents of some of those who lost their lives in the service of The Circus are bringing a lawsuit, searching for who was responsible, or is it more about money? Squawk loud enough, and maybe the British government will pay them to go away. We are unduly fascinated with finding someone to blame when maybe we should blame circumstances, unpredictable events, and unreliable information.

Meanwhile, Guillam is on the hot seat.

Oh, and they seem unnaturally interesting in his sex life during the service. Did you fuck her!? Of course, the answer, as a gentleman and a gentleman who does not want to go to jail for screwing his subordinates, is always a polite no.

The circumstances that Peter finds himself in remind me of the Nathan D. Muir character played by Robert Redford in the movie Spy Game(2001). Delay, parse your words carefully, and never get trapped in lies. The best offense in these cases is a best defense. Stick to your story and force them to reveal what they know.
Where is George Smiley?

”’To walk, I assume. It’s where he goes.’

‘For how long?’

‘A few days. Maybe a week.’

‘And when he came back. Was he an altered man?’

‘George doesn’t alter. He just gets his composure back.’”


John Le Carre has exhumed the body of his greatest creation, George Smiley. As always, he has a surety about his writing that has not changed with age. Reading this book was like experiencing my own reading past. Did I believe the right thing then? Are the new conclusions anymore right? One thing I do know is I’m never going to bet against Smiley. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that f he did anything wrong, it was in the pursuit of the greater good. I always want Smiley on that wall.
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A reunion book, and quite a pleasurable one. Le Carré gets Smiley’s gang together one last time, knowing the reader will thrill at seeing them mashed against the modern world. It is particularly lovely to spend so much time in the head of the first-person lead Peter Guillam, who is as charming and caddish as ever, and whose misdoings are treated with great affection (there is even a clever wink at his gay retconning in the Oldman TINKER TAILOR film).

The best moments here come with the now aged Peter’s indignation at contemporary spy-craft (a highlight coming when he pretends to need hearing aids during an early interrogation scene), but alas the plot of the book does not live up to the fine character-work. It requires deep knowledge of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, which is not as good as the Karla novels, and spends way too much time filling in a minor back story from it. In fact, this review itself probably only makes sense if you know the characters already. The antagonist is somewhat disastrous – at one point he just develops an eidetic memory - and the late turns, save for the exceptional last one, are rushed. There is some interest in the interpolated Circus texts, which come in a lean present tense, but they can’t conceal the absence of action in the outer-frame.

Fans will thrill to this, as I did. Le Carré is always a pleasure, particularly with these characters. His is that rarest mix of craft ability and addiction. I wish it were just a bit better, but I am very grateful for it, for him, and complaining seems petty.
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"We don't pay a lot, and careers tend to be interrupted. But we do feel it is an important job, as long as one cares about the end, and not too much about the means."
- John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies
Le Carré's fiction career can be roughly be divided into two broad, angry worlds (if we ignore his brief, early attempt at crime fiction): Cold War espionage novels and post-Cold War espionage novels. 'A Legacy of Spies' bridges this gulf with one of the great characters from le Carré's early works (let's call them his Broadway House books) by placing one of the best characters from the Cold War, Peter Guillam, George Smiley's right-hand man, into his post-Cold War period (let's call these books his Vauxhall Trollop books). By doing this, le Carré essentially sets up a novel where the retired "heroes" of the Cold-War "Circus" are judged by the lawyers of Whitehall/Legoland/Vauxhall Trollop.

If you didn't think a fictionalized account of a bureaucratic, HR nightmare could be sexy, well, think again. Le Carré's cold genius is found in his ability to show the moral contradictions involved in espionage work and also place that into context to the modern world. This book allows le Carré to juggle both the moral difficulties of the past (Ends>Means) and contrast that with the current state of Mi6 in the UK (Means>Ends). In his struggle to discover if the means of the past were worth the moral costs, while illuminating if the bureaucratic efficiency of the now is effective or even moral, le Carré discovers one core truth of the Modern World: the lawyers and the bureaucrats have won.
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An immensely satisfying conclusion to the George Smiley series. The clever plot manages to reference many of the classic Smiley books and plotlines, and also to drag them into the 21st century. This means we learn more about earlier stories and also what happened to some of the characters, not least Karla (in passing).

Although Smiley himself is not physically present for the majority of 'A Legacy of Spies' his shadow touches every page.

Timing-wise this new George Smiley book by John le Carré could not have come at a more opportune time for me. Between February 2017 and May 2017 I read the entire Smiley series...

'Call for the Dead' (1961)
'A Murder of Quality' (1962)
'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold' (1963)
'The Looking Glass War' (1965)
'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' (1974)
'The Honourable Schoolboy' (1977)
'Smiley's People' (1980)
'The Secret Pilgrim' (1991)

...and, to varying degrees, each is wonderful. Predictably, having reached the end of the series, I was left with a sense of loss. And then, to my delight and amazement, a new George Smiley book, 'A Legacy of Spies' arrived on 7 September 2017.

I can categorically reassure anyone who loves the character and the series that this maintains the quality and the plotting that readers have come to expect. I savoured every page.

Peter Guillam, Smiley's former right-hand man, and long retired, is centre stage in this novel. As the novel opens Guillam is enjoying life at his family home in Brittany. One day his peaceful life is disturbed by the arrival of an official letter from the Service summoning him back to England in connection with "a matter in which you appear to have played a significant role some years back".

Guillam is apprehensive. He returns to a very 21st century new headquarters by the Thames where a pair of lawyers, the memorably faux-friendly Bunny, and businesslike Laura, during which the veteran Guillam uses all his knowledge to try to outfox this pair of interrogators. They want to know all about Operation Windfall (detailed in 'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold'). This protracted opening scene is John le Carré at his very best and brings Guillam slap bang into the modern world. From then on Guillam is forced to revisit his former life and consider the consequences of what happened.

If, like me, you have enjoyed le Carré’s Smiley books, then this is everything you will have hoped for and wanted. Bravo John le Carré.
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I discovered the best spy thriller writer of all time (and yes, I include Ian Fleming in that group) in the mid 1960s when I stumbled across a copy of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I have since read many, but sadly not all, of John le Carre’s novels, but certainly ALL of his Smiley books. Imagine my joy to find George Smiley, Alec Leamas, and Peter Guillam could reappear and that John le Carre had one more bit of behind the iron curtain story to tell us.

Le Carre does what few can do...he picks up the past, plops it into the present, and makes it work. I loved this old spy, called to account for a past that can barely be explained to the little snot-noses who now run the Circus, as much as I loved his younger version. And, to think that these characters could be revived 25 years later and still have the same effect is amazing. Proof, as if any was needed, that John le Carre is the BEST.

Did I enjoy it? You bet. The effect it had on me was to make me want to sit right down and read all my Smiley books over again. I had truly forgotten how much fun it could be to read such an intelligent and twisty story. Who knew we would someday miss the Cold War? Who knew George Smiley wasn’t dead to us after all, just sitting in seclusion waiting for us to need him again?

I was planning to give this 4-stars. It isn’t profound in the way that a classic is or life-altering the way some books are. However, I think it gets an extra point for just the sheer joy it brought me...and hey, these stars are mine to give...so a big, fat 5-stars to you sir, and hopes that this will not be the last wonder that falls from your mind onto paper.
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Awesome book, all Le Carré aficionados will want to read this. 
Long dead characters and plots from his heyday are literally unearthed and desecrated by the righteous anger of the 21st-century establishment, anxious to disassociate itself from its Cold War practices. Enough said. The old Le Carré multi-layered, triple-locked plot is there, the truth always tantalisingly out of reach until the very end (and even then), and the characters continue to suffer from the consequences of what they have done to other people in order to win at the shadowy great game. I can't help thinking the author himself wanted to revisit and perhaps clarify some of the more obscure passages of his earlier and greatest books. Or simply enjoy reliving past glories.
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As ever, Le Carre is the master of narratives of dissimulation and regret at the lies that have fractured the lives of his protagonists. This book is entrancing, lovely even, in it's exploration of the life of a former spy, Peter Guillam, whose actions and sacrifices are being questioned in the post-cold war world, all the more so because his training in secrecy and non-disclosure means he doles out as much mis-information as revelations during interrogation.

Ironically, the spies of the modern era cannot determine what the spies of yesterday were up to behind the operation Le Carre related in his breakthrough book, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. Will the current government hang Peter out to dry for apparent sins done in the name of fighting communism? How much of the truth can be revealed, and to whom? Is Peter a scapegoat or an engineer of human tragedy that deserves to be punished? As a narrator his prevarications will leave you teetering between these perspectives until the very end. The ending itself is set up brilliantly, but sputters a bit in the final pages -- there are no fireworks, instead a dying away to embers. Fitting perhaps as the Cold War itself dissipated in a moment of euphoria to be replaced with new tensions and new subterfuges that call for different sorts of spies.

The book gains strength in being by read as a companion piece to The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, as well as resonating with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: The Karla Trilogy Book 1 (George Smiley. It can be read independently, but will spoil both of the those books for readers who are new to the world of The Circus and George Smiley. Take the time to read the first book, it's short and well worth it, before you tackle this one.

It isn't the best of Le Carre's novels about the men and women, ordinary in so many ways, yet who made extraordinary sacrifices to live hidden and dangerous lives. As always, the sub-text here looks to confront what that battle hoped to gain, was the cause just? Were all of the players entering the game for same ends? It is a question the book leaves to be decided, but the novel itself serves as an appropriate epitaph that speaks volumes to the unrelenting forces of history that always find ways to grind up and spit up people who try to make the world a better place.
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A fine effort by le Carre in his most recent offering. Here we are looking at a situation where the current spy agency is both questioning and trying to undermine Operation Windfall that involved George Smiley and all his fellow Cold War agents. 
Much of this book is seen as a series of flashback as set forth in Agency memos and notes. I really enjoyed the book and it made me a bit peeved at the new political correctness that pervades agencies who do not have a historical perspective to understand and appreciate what their predecessors had to go through during that time period. The book really makes it appear that the British Covert agencies are on trial for "collateral damage" deaths that occurred in the Cold War, while at the same time being blind to the actions and counteractions that were undertaken by the East Germans and Russians.
Not sure if this will be le Carre's last book, but if so it wraps up a lot and allows us to take a look at todays spy agencies in not the most glowing light.
Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34496624-a-legacy-of-spies

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