le Carre again stakes his claim as the only contemporary spy novelist who really matters. In revisiting The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carre gets to peel back its narrative to reveal juicy new details, with no lack of dark humor. He also gets to frame the story in the consciousness of a new era. His central theme, more potent than ever, is 'how much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom ... before we cease to feel either human or free?' Or, how long will it be before the violence we commit in the name of peace and religion destroy those values? A kind of eulogy for the present as well as the past, A Legacy of Spies is haunting in the way it downgrades human connections and casts out Peter Guillam from a hopeful existence.
A Legacy of Spies brings it all back, as fresh and as rancid as ever, in a tale that shows the master in the full vigour of his old mastery ... satisfies not only by being vintage Le Carré, which it is, but in the way in which it so neatly and ingeniously closes the circle of the author’s long career ... The plot of the new book is derived from and intricately woven into that of its predecessor. This is an immensely clever piece of novelistic engineering, of which its deviser can be justifiably proud. The ingenuity and skill with which the thing is brought off is breathtaking – really, not since The Spy has Le Carré exercised his gift as a storyteller so powerfully and to such thrilling effect.
The good news about A Legacy of Spies is that it delivers a writer in full. Le Carré’s prose remains brisk and lapidary. His wit is intact and rolls as if on casters. He is as profitably interested as ever in values, especially the places where loyalty, patriotism and affection rub together and fray. He wears his gravitas lightly ... There’s a distant oink of male chauvinism in this tweedy novel, one that goes beyond establishing the sexual atmosphere of swinging ’60s-era Britain ... Le Carré is not of my generation but I have read him for long enough to understand how, for many readers, his characters are old friends — part of their mental furniture. There’s something moving about seeing him revive them so effortlessly, to see that the old magic still holds. He thinks internationally but feels domestically. In an upside-down time, he appeals to comprehension rather than instinct. I might as well say it: to read this simmering novel is to come in from the cold.
Superficially at least, this is a tale of one generation passing judgment on another but without understanding the context...This element of the book is undermined slightly by the blunt characterization of the young Circus staff. The new guard is ignorant, disrespectful, brash, overly familiar and full of hubris, so it comes as little surprise when the old-timers start to run rings around them. Yet this does not distract from the novel’s agile examination of its meatier questions: How much collateral damage can be justified by the need to protect a source? What are the implications of our new obsession with historical crime? Mr. le Carré even touches on Brexit, including an eloquent and heartfelt defense of a European identity ... A Legacy of Spies offers, finally, the fascinating spectacle of a talented novelist casting a critical eye over his early masterpiece, marking it for style and moral substance ... Although there are moments when this book does not quite work, and though some readers will simply prefer The Spy or Tinker Tailor, A Legacy of Spies deserves to be seen as a very different literary enterprise. As well as being an inspired feat of plotting, it is the boldest and most inventive Smiley novel to date. It is also a finely wrought examination of one man’s struggle to come to terms with his past.
If Legacy isn’t among Le Carré’s very best, it’s entirely readable and often ingenious, in part because it amounts to a sequel, more than 50 years later, to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold ... A Legacy of Spies thus operates on two levels. It reconstructs Leamas’s doomed operation even as it shows Guillam 50 years later trying to escape punishment for actions hailed as heroic at the time. The novel can be challenging as it often leaps between past and present, but le Carré’s books usually repay our patience. This one does, as Guillam’s troubles extend beyond the lawsuit to the murder of his friends, an attempt on his own life, corruption in high places, a search for Smiley and an unexpected life as a fugitive ... if le Carré should make A Legacy of Spies his last, it would be an honorable exit.
The truth and reconciliation structure is a clever conceit on le Carré’s part, a plausible gambit for resurrecting dead characters and examining them with enlightened eyes ... It would be an exaggeration to say the Tulip story ranks with classic le Carré, in part because its suspense is mitigated by the reader’s knowledge that her story is only a lengthy footnote here. Tulip is a vivid character, torn up by her bitterness toward the men who mistreat her, her love of her son, her lingering loyalty to the communist cause, and her hatred of America. Spying for and defecting to Britain is a compromise she makes out of desperation. The adventure allows Leamas to flaunt his tradecraft through a series of cock-ups; Guillam to indulge in a memorable romantic dalliance; and Smiley to display his skill in cleaning up a mess and turning the tables on the enemy. There follow new details about Leamas’s mission and the machinations of Control and Smiley to enlist Liz Gold unwittingly in their double-double-cross plot to protect their own mole in East Germany. These bits are superfluous, since the issue of Smiley’s culpability in their deaths lingers unrevised. Reconciliation may be too much to ask anyway. As Jim Prideaux once told Smiley: 'They told me to forget it … and that’s what I’ve been doing. Obeying orders, and forgetting.'”
...an intricately plotted and richly satisfying new novel ... A Legacy of Spies sees Le Carré doing what he does best: blending cloak-and-dagger intrigue, psychological insight, murky expedience and moral complexity to produce first-rate fiction ... skillfully straddles past and present: It reads like a polished period piece within a modern framework. Peter’s interrogators update his antiquated spy-speak — and yet by falling back on old tradecraft tricks, Peter manages to stay one step ahead. For more than 50 years, Le Carré has also stayed ahead. In this, his 24th novel, there is no trace of waning power, only bold new creativity.
One of the principal pleasures of A Legacy of Spies is watching the battle of words and ideas between the old and new agents of Her Majesty’s Secret Service ... Fans of Le Carré’s earlier fiction — or their various film incarnations — will feast at the historical banquet that is A Legacy of Spies, which serves almost as a prequel to the earlier novels. For new readers, the themes Le Carré explores — most notably the toll exacted on the individual’s soul by serving institutions that fail to live up to their professed values — will resonate as they consider past and present covert actions of British and U.S. governments. For as Smiley notes, quoting a Russian joke popular in the 1950s, 'There will be no war, but in the struggle for peace not a stone will be left standing.'”
Le Carré has lost none of his sardonic wit. And his taut descriptions still exude menace and dread, particularly in the flashbacks that bring this novel to life ... The enduring appeal of his novels, however, lies not in their philosophy but in their exquisite density of character and place, the result of le Carré’s unrivalled ability to see: winter light after rain, snow on cobblestones, a traitor’s smile. And if A Legacy of Spies is thinner in this sense, the reader, unlike the spy, can always return to the past for pleasure.
Structured by the present-day interrogation, A Legacy of Spies substantially plays out in memory. The fascinating crystal-radios of the Cold War novels are mostly gone, here. Instead, the technology is human memory alone ... Like all le Carré novels, A Legacy of Spies is a confusing tangle until about three quarters of the way through, when the materials he has thrown into the air settle down into a shape it turns out you were half-suspecting all along without realizing it. In the absence of Cold War technologies, since those spying days are over, le Carré has turned a single elderly man’s memory into a machine so highly elaborated, so poetically structured, and so very sad that it seems to hold all the world inside it.
One wonders at first why le Carré would bother revisiting territory whose possibilities were realized so successfully 50-odd years ago. While A Legacy of Spies may not occupy the upper tier of le Carré’s body of work, it’s as swift and satisfying a read as the book it derives from. Through its beloved characters, Legacy also revives old, yet still relevant questions about whether the 'ends' compelled by the long-moribund Cold War — or any war — were worth the questionable 'means.' But what you all really want to know is whether George Smiley is still alive. You won't find out here. We need to keep some secrets secret, right?
Longtime le Carré readers have noticed for years the disconnect between the early novels, in which George Smiley, despite his overwhelming sense of moral ambiguity, never stopped believing in the necessity of espionage, and the later novels, in which the intelligence business has been poisoned from within. What, we’ve often wondered, would the stoop-shouldered Smiley make of today’s world? Finally, le Carré gives us the answer ... Those who have followed le Carrè’s career will relish the opportunity to revisit that enduring conundrum.
The result is both a riveting reprise of the Smiley novels and a new articulation of le Carré’s theme: spying is as morally bankrupt as the ideologies it serves. Readers familiar with le Carré will recognize allusions everywhere; those who aren’t won’t be left out, given the power of the storytelling and le Carré’s inimitable prose. He can convey a character in a sentence, land an emotional insight in the smallest phrase—and demolish an ideology in a paragraph.
Any reader who knows le Carré’s earlier work, and quite a few who don’t, will assume that any attempt to second-guess the mandarins of the Service will backfire. The miracle is that the author can revisit his best-known story and discover layer upon layer of fresh deception beneath it.