“Do you now have all the information you require?”
“I envy you.”
This is the exchange between two veteran agents that populate John Le Carre’s new novel A Legacy of Spies and it sums up the rest of the book’s tone beautifully.
This is a work that is well aware that there are no such things as simple answers or even simple questions. Lies fill rooms like smoke, choking and confusing the inhabitants while the truth slips out unnoticed, its remnants pushed into tall corners by the spreading fumes until nothing is distinguishable from the dark. This is a world that Le Carre knows all too well and commands brilliantly. As the true ringleader of the literary spy novel – a title he has proven his worthiness for via the genre’s finest entries – we have come to expect his novels to be both entertaining and insightful much like one of his most ardent admirers, Graham Greene.
Now, when most authors have his generation have retired or departed altogether, Le Carre is on something of a greatest hits tour – reviving one of his most interesting supporting players from his earlier novels and promoting him to lead. We’ve got Peter Guillam in riveting, first person form with cameos from other familiar faces too (including, yes, the iconic George Smiley). Established fans will feel that familiar warmth but relatively new readers will be greeted with a true depth of character to probe as his deceptive recollections unspool.
Through flashback, interview and stolen files he walks us through the operation that formed the basis of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – an operation that has come back to haunt the Circus and threaten its public downfall. As something of a sequel to Spy Who and Le Carre’s Karla trilogy (in particular Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy), it’s advised to be well versed in these works in particular before delving into this in order to avoid spoiling prior carefully plotted revelations.
But this isn’t a cash in on former glories. Nor is A Legacy of Spies isn’t just a stroll down a shadow and fog drenched memory lane; it’s also a veteran’s icy comment on the bureaucratic nature of modern espionage – legal, HR, PR. If that sounds at all dull, just remember that this an author who makes sifting through dusty papers feel Hitchcockian in its level of expertly judged suspense. Because his characters are so well drawn and ultimately human, we respond to their moral and physical danger as we grapple with the daunting task of understanding their layers of predicaments. Few spy stories bring us close to the people behind the aliases.
And here Le Carre is experimenting somewhat riskily with a mixture of forms – interview transcripts, first person, third person, second hand recollections, official files, the gaps in official files that have been stolen or redacted, official conversations, unofficial conversations, East and West Berlin, codes, diversions, shadows, fog, smoke and mirrors. It’s a garden maze of ideas – the thrill comes from backtracking on your wrong turns to find the exit. If you’ve seen an Oliver Stone film with its scattershot myriad of shooting styles, this will be right at home. But what an audacious form for a regal writer of this age to adopt. This isn’t just a novel – it’s a critical assessment of past works as well as current musing on what constitutes the ideas of trust and interpretation. The jumps in style force the reader to maintain Le Carre’s gallop and question which form we should believe.
What’s so riveting about A Legacy of Spies is how the conflicting narratives of The Spy Who and Tinker, Tailor have been inverted and contorted to give the audience a new perspective. It’s the classic three sides to the story: yours, mine and the truth. Guillam here navigates us around all three as Le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies muddies the lines between each version of truth with typically invigorating craft.
This craft is on fine, literate display on every page. Take this chapter opener: “The benign weather of yesterday had been driven off by a lateral rain that raked the streets of Pimlico like gunfire”. The mix of routine and passion; place and atmosphere, probing and piercing. Le Carre finds danger in filing cabinets with no files in them – that’s how strong of a command he has over his narratives and, in turn, his audiences. The Bonds and the Bournes of this world make fists out of their hands to fight in the open. Le Carre’s characters make fists because they’re tightly protecting a scrap of paper that could get them killed and make a wildfire of the Cold War.
A Legacy of Spies not only enriches classic Le Carre works but emerges from the cold fog as its own riveting story. With this grand pageturner, we learn that our favourite characters can never truly rest or sleep. They are haunted by their profession. Perhaps that’s why they’re sometimes called “spooks”. We don’t envy them.
A Legacy of Spies is available now through Penguin Viking.