Viking, 272 pages, $28
It’s one thing to wrap up loose threads, it’s a genius thing to fifty-four years later create loose threads that need fixing. Is there any spy book more iconic than “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”? John le Carré wrote that in 1963. George Smiley, spy master and grand marshal of the spy parade, made a quiet splash there. Main spy character Alec Leamas — spoiler alert — died at the end, along with his lover Liz Gold.
What made le Carré’s books different was the moral gray ground through which the characters waded. There is no suave James Bond with a license to kill. There are instead intellectuals playing a chess game with real people as pieces.
“A Legacy of Spies” takes place an indeterminate amount of time after “The Spy.” Peter Guillam, a second banana in many of the Smiley books, has been retired to his Brittany farm for many years. It is Guillam, not Smiley, who holds forth from center in the current novel.
Descendants of Leamas and Gold are threatening to file suit against the British government for the wrongful death of their relatives. It’s the ne plus ultra of our current way of resolving difficulties. This banal starting point opens a cascade of case files and memories. Rightly or wrongly, Guillam is held to account for what happened so long ago. Interrogated in the agency offices by the likes of a Bunny and a Tabby*, Guillam remains sanguine. Le Carré’s sly humor pops out more than in just funny character names. Guillam’s observations are often understated and wry.
After protesting ignorance too much to the interrogating agents and not getting away with it, Guillam remembers it all, although, of course, only the tip of the story is revealed to the imperious Bunny and Tabby. We, as readers, get to experience the full force of what lies in Guillam’s cave of wonder. Le Carré is so good at peeling back the layers of a story. He aims not so much for a hit between the eyes as for a challenge to our moral center. He succeeded in “The Spy” and he succeeds here. Our sympathies lie almost everywhere (including with Bunny and Tabby, but only for their fluffy names) in this telling.
“A Legacy of Spies” is an old man’s story. As agelessly randy as Guillam may have been and currently may be, his spycraft and politics are from another era. The enemy had faces, not hardware. They were killers, not hackers. A couple of guys used to be capable of settling things, without an army or missiles, instead of an army or missiles. This spy’s legacy is tinged with complicated relationships and emotions. As the fifty-four-year-old story** emerges, the only thing that matters is what the spies did and will do for love.
* Okay, you got me. Her name in the book is Tabitha, but who could resist.
** Fifty-four years is not quite accurate. As mentioned, the main story takes place an indeterminate amount of time from the original events in “The Spy.” Fifty-four is the number of years between then and 2017.