Andrew Taylor

A blast from the past

A Legacy of Spies, John le Carré’s return to the murky past, tempts Andrew Taylor back to the Circus

If you had to choose one book that both typified spy fiction and celebrated what the genre was capable of doing, then John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is probably the one to go for. Published in 1963, and set within the comfortably binary framework of the Cold War, it combined moral ambiguity and an air of grim authenticity with a steady narrative pull. It also had an unforced literary distinction that made it impossible to dismiss as ‘mere’ genre fiction.

Now, over half a century later, le Carré’s latest novel returns to this murky episode and proceeds to make it even more complicated and harrowing than it was before. Set in or around the present, A Legacy of Spies focuses on Peter Guillam, formerly the professional sexpot of Covert Operations and a loyal sidekick of the legendary spymaster George Smiley.

The lawyers of the Service — formerly known as the Circus — order him to London from his rural retirement in Brittany to face the threat of charges arising from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Smiley’s operation, which was designed to protect a high-ranking East German double agent, led to the deaths of a British agent, Alec Leamas, his idealistic girlfriend, Liz Gold, and an East German source codenamed Tulip (real name Frau Gamp — a sly nod to Dickens?).

In the present, Christoph, Leamas’s brutish German son, is proposing to sue the Service in general and Guillam in particular for the deaths of his father, Liz Gold and Tulip (once Guillam’s lover). Christoph has recruited the support of the children of Liz Gold and Tulip; his aim is money, rather than justice. To make matters worse, the most important files relating to the operation have vanished, and no one is quite sure whether Smiley is alive or dead.

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