John le Carré's A Legacy of Spies is a compelling tale of Cold War duplicity

It may seem a strange observation, but love is a major component of the author's fictional world.

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This is a novel for John le Carré aficionados. More particularly, it’s a novel for people who have read and absorbed le Carré’s best-known novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, published in 1963. For good measure, a familiarity with his second-most-famous novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, will add immeasurably to the intense pleasures to be derived from this compelling tale of Cold War duplicity and manoeuvrings in the British secret service.

A Legacy of Spies acts both as a prequel and as a coda to The Spy. It’s narrated by Peter Guillam in the present day, flashing back principally to 1959. The Cold War is at its chilliest, but with no Berlin Wall erected yet. Guillam, le Carré fans will recall, was George Smiley’s loyal number two in Tinker Tailor. It turns out, as he tells his story, that he played a crucial role in the events that led up to the operation at the centre of The Spy: namely, the infiltration of a purported British double agent, Guillam’s close friend Alec Leamas, into the heart of the East German espionage service, the Stasi, and his subsequent sacrifice.

It was all an elaborate act of disinformation. Leamas’s conception of his mission is false: he was being manipulated by Smiley with the motive of protecting a crucial East German mole. Leamas was ruthlessly used in the set-up and is shot dead, along with his communist girlfriend, Liz Gold, at the Berlin Wall (which went up in 1961) as they try to escape back to the West.

Peter Guillam is summoned from retirement in his Brittany farmhouse to be confronted by interrogators from the modern MI6. Guillam’s age is never mentioned but we can assume it’s approximately that of the author – mid-eighties. So he is an elderly spook but still physically nimble and with a fully functioning spy’s brain. The issue is stark: the British government is being sued by Leamas’s and Gold’s children – the litigation being led by Leamas’s German son, Christoph. They claim their parents were sacrificed by the secret service and they demand justice and reparation. However, when MI6 went to consult the relevant files for Operation Windfall, as the events in The Spy were code-named, they found that key documents were missing, believed to have been purloined by Guillam and his boss, Smiley.

Guillam’s interrogators – a man called Bunny and a woman called Laura – want to know the facts of the Windfall case. What happened, who was responsible, where is the missing information now? Slowly but surely, and not without a deal of evasion on Guillam’s part as the lengthy interrogation proceeds, they are revealed to us. The bleakly amoral world of the British secret service that le Carré depicted in The Spy is underscored by the duplicities and betrayals of A Legacy. We were always as culpable and as shameful as our enemies.

It would be wrong to elaborate much further on the unfolding narrative of A Legacy. As ever, much of the pleasure of reading le Carré is that you have to be on your intellectual mettle: pay attention or you’ll miss something crucial. It’s also fascinating to encounter familiar faces – Alec Leamas, in particular, in his pre-The Spy incarnation as deputy head of the Berlin station.

It is Leamas who suspects that there’s a mole at the heart of the British espionage establishment. His agents in the field – his “joes” – keep getting themselves killed or arrested. He gives this information to Smiley (and here we see the roots of Tinker Tailor) and, of course, we are fully aware that the Kim Philby figure in le Carré’s fictional world is Bill Haydon.

Curiously, wisdom of hindsight doesn’t mar the novel at all. Even though we know Leamas’s fate, his exfiltration of his key agent in East Germany – a young and lubricious secretary in the Stasi code-named “Tulip” – is entirely gripping as they drive through Germany and into Czechoslovakia. Indeed, it’s the events and consequences of Tulip’s escape to England and her eventual debriefing that lay out the unsavoury and disturbing nature of the spying game – the UK version. And Peter Guillam is very much implicated, and feels guilty. At the end of the novel he tracks down Smiley, living in obscurity in Freiburg, seeking illumination and some form of expiation. It is a great encounter between these two aged spies (Smiley must be in his nineties, I calculate) and le Carré splendidly offers us no consolation. It was and is a dirty business.

However, as is to be expected in le Carré, it’s not quite seamlessly excellent. Sometimes he gets the tone of the contemporary world wrong. Bunny and Laura, the perky MI6 interrogators, don’t always ring true. Partly this is the result of a tic that has developed in late le Carré – the overuse of italics in dialogue to stress words. For example:

Peter! Gosh! You look positively jaunty! And half your age! You travelled well? Coffee? Tea? Honestly not? Really, really good of you to come. A huge help. You’ve met Laura? Of course you have. So sorry to have kept you waiting in there.

It begins to draw attention to itself. Also, I don’t believe that anyone involved in covert action today would openly snort cocaine in a crowded London restaurant early in the evening and expect to get away with it. More tellingly, there is a procedural slip-up and a potential narrative hole in the events surrounding the Tulip exfiltration that nag at the concentrating reader. You ask yourself: how could this conceivably happen? I won’t reveal the nuts and bolts as it would be too much of a spoiler – but it’s to do with a postcard and a convenient mantrap, which seems contrived, not to say impossible. I reread the section several times but couldn’t discern a plausible causal sequence that would explain events. It is a rare instance of slackness in what is otherwise a complex and beautifully elaborate narrative.

But le Carré isn’t all about the intricacies of plotting. We can now see, looking at the oeuvre, that other themes and issues recur constantly, and A Legacy of Spies is no exception. There is the worldly cynicism about the way nations and their security apparatus work. Also, the focus on betrayal, on traitors, while a recurrent theme in the espionage novel genre, is particularly intense in le Carré’s novels, probably because the author was in the secret service at the time of the devastating revelations of Kim Philby’s two-decades-long role as a Soviet master spy. Philby’s shadow darkens le Carré’s greatest novels as it darkens this one.

Furthermore, there is an underlying theme that human emotion (usually love) is often the element – the flaw in the spy – that brings about tragedy or fatality. This is true of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and, for example, The Honourable Schoolboy, and is particularly relevant in A Legacy of Spies. It may seem a strange observation to make but love – its allure, its demands and its often disastrous consequences – is a major component of le Carré’s fictional world. The human factor is often the immovable spanner in the works of the intelligence machine, as Peter Guillam could testify.

William Boyd has written the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”. His story collection “The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth” will be published in November

A Legacy of Spies
John le Carré
Viking, 264pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move