A Legacy of Spies
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
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 Carré 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 Carré and his narrator Peter Guillam present the reader with a legacy of unforgettable characters old and new.
"In those days of yesteryear..."
After 25+ post-Cold-War years straining to help us adjust to the more complicated naughts & crosses of international morality, with rather equivocal novels about less frightening (and less existential) clashes of kinda-good versus kinda-evil, John le Carre suddenly invites us to sit back, tense up, and gorge on the familiar comfort food of The Circus & The Commies. The old gang back together--or, more accurately, the old gang in flashback to the time before the lot got broken up by death, betrayal, ambiguity, and irrelevance. Here's ol' Jim Prideaux! And Connie Sachs! Toby Esterhase, Percy Alleline...and--my heavens!--is that YOU, Control? It IS the doomed grey eagle himself, full of bitter ruthless genius effectively implied if not exactly voiced. Wow! Watch 'em spy!
Of course, the guy for whom we are really pining is here too, polishing his glasses with his tie (sigh, enough with the tie/glasses tic, we get it, we get it): George Smiley. And, as he began to do in "Tinker, Tailor..." le Carre chooses to give us Smiley through the point-of-view eyes of his acolyte Peter Guillam. In fact, Guillam is the on-stage male lead of the novel. He's the one in (supposed) danger, he's the one with the (supposed) secrets & the Magic Decoder Ring to make sense of the (supposedly) horrific revelations. Or something like that.
Therein lies my disappointment with "A Legacy of Spies." See, I never really cared much for Peter Guillam. I felt I was SUPPOSED TO care for the comely young stud, because the author obviously liked him tremendously & expected me to follow the obvious signs that Peter was just so cool & clever & admirable. Well...I kinda faked a mild enthusiasm for the fish, out of deference to my idol Smiley, who was tolerantly stuck with him. But here I lost my concern 20 pages in, and never recovered anything but my historic fatigue with PG.
It is nevertheless a big-bag-of-crisps pleasure to hang around with the crew (especially old fave Oliver Mendel!) as they rumble through what is essentially an explanation of "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold." Yay! Go, Brits! Die, Commies! One knows what happens/was gonna happen/happened, so the only true suspense is whether or not Guillam (and the elusive mastermind Smiley???) will get sued to the last sou by children of dead heroes trying to bring heavy Cold War dues home to the Circus boffins of yore.
Then the book ends abruptly. Before we get any resolution to this mild present-day threat to humiliate (yawn) and impoverish (yawn, yawn) Guillam, Smiley, the Crown, whatever. Bang--it's over. I mean, sure, the newly-explained backstory was already over before the exegesis began. But after a few words from Smiley, promising to clear up the present mini-crisis--words I guess we are meant to accept instead of scenes in which Smiley might deliver the implied actions--le Carre is done. And one cannot help feeling the old Circus is done too.
Friends of mine who were fanatics of the Star Wars universe had feelings about the recent "The Force Awakens" film: nostalgia, mild excitement at the familiar hope for dangerous importance, but ultimately a half-empty sense of rehashed exploitation. Now, I do not believe John le Carre has an exploitative impulse in his heart & mind (unlike, say, Disney?). He is laying on the comfort food, but it is a luncheon, not a feast. And 20 minutes later, I'm mildly hungry again...but not at all sure I'll want to snack even if he brings ol' George & Peter back in another installment.
A Legacy of Spies
We are led to believe that this is another of the George Smiley books that have thrilled us in past years and yet Smiley barely makes an appearance. Legacy of Spies is basically a Peter Guillame story with the old Circus characters making very brief appearances. Le Carre seems to aim for a complex storyline that unfortunately ends up in a muddle and without resolution. All the old names are dropped but nothing is resolved. This book is not worthy of the larger than life characters we encountered in the original trilogy and it's a pity.
- Category: Mysteries & Thrillers
- Published: Sep 05, 2017
- Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
- Seller: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
- Print Length: 272 Pages
- Language: English