A LEGACY OF SPIES is the long sought-after backstory of le Carre’s first bestseller, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (henceforth THE SPY), a slim volume that taught many readers how the Cold War was fought. This week’s book review is all about connecting the oh-so-cold dots.
To refresh your memory, in THE SPY British intel officer Alex Leamas, a hard-drinking, hard-driving spymaster in Berlin, pretends to get fired and fall on hard times. It is a ruse, however, for Alex to be “recruited” by Soviet/East German intelligence so he can save an odious East German intel officer who is Britain’s greatest asset inside the Iron Curtain. To position himself to be pitched, Leamas develops a relationship with an unwitting librarian named Elizabeth Gold who brings him along as her plus one when she attends a socialist conference in East Germany—all orchestrated by the brilliantly quiet George Smiley.
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In A LEGACY OF SPIES, it is 50 years later. The offspring of Leamas and Gold sue the British government to find out how and why their parents disappeared. The new generation of British spooks, who want to make the lawsuit go away, find that the files on Leamas, as well as the East German agent codenamed Windfall, have been purged.
With no memory of the Cold War and no appetite for its justifications, they bring in Peter Guillam (BTW, Benedict Cumberbatch played him in the 2011 movie with Gary Oldman as George Smiley). No one can find Smiley; but as the infamous spycatcher’s right-hand-man, Guillam will do.
Guillam narrates the book, which moves across time. At first we are in the present when he is summoned to London, there to find that long-held secrets are on the verge of being exposed. Then through his memory, we are transported to a Cold War landscape. London plots and directs. Spies sneak in and out of East Germany which is replete with Stasi brutality and Communist paranoia. There are shortages of everything, except informers.
The look into the past gives us the first case in which Smiley is led to believe there is a mole inside British intelligence and reveals how Windfall came to be recruited to the British side. These elements set in motion everything that happens in THE SPY.
A LEGACY OF SPIES is another le Carré espionage tour de force. Haunting writing, the sense of wheels-within-wheels. The back and forth across time is handled deftly, without confusion.
Subtle clues abound. Gather them carefully—le Carré is never obvious.
The book is a standalone, but will be a richer experience if you have at least read THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (or saw the 1965 movie starring Richard Burton. FYI Dublin substituted for Berlin).
Other bestsellers featuring Smiley and his team, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and SMILEY’S PEOPLE, are also referenced in A LEGACY OF SPIES. Peter Guillam was with Smiley through the entire Cold War, you see, and he has a long memory.