A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré is not for newbies to the world of master-spy George Smiley. You will need the deep background of the Circus, a fictionalized service of British Intelligence. Primarily, you must understand the stakes and the stratagems of the Cold War. And, you won’t find this new book much fun at all if you haven’t read at least two of its predecessor novels – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
It’s difficult for a long-toothed fan like me to imagine what it would be like puzzling through A Legacy of Spies without that working knowledge. Smiley’s last appearance was in Le Carré’s 1990 novel The Secret Pilgrim, which was itself a reflective, backward look at the series of Smiley-centered stories that culminated in 1979 with Smiley’s People. That book completed a trilogy begun with Tinker, followed by The Honourable Schoolboy. The trilogy forms the collection The Quest for Karla, referring to the code name of Smiley’s arch-enemy in the KGB.
This recent installment in the Smiley saga opens old wounds. Legal eagles of the Service – the modern-day Circus – are conducting a witch-hunt. Two children of clandestine operatives of yesteryear want to know how and why their parents were murdered by the East German police. Both operatives were on a secret mission for Her Majesty’s government at the time. The children allege that the hubris and arrogance of Circus master planners resulted in a monstrous and fatal cock-up. Like many members of their generation, the young people seem to believe that the quiet clash of Western democracies with the Soviets was pointless, deceitful, and contrived. Indeed, the spies’ own name for their war – the Great Game – suggests a chilling lack of appropriate deadly seriousness.
What’s more, the kids want money damages, at least, and perhaps a public scandal. Understandably, the attorneys who represent the Service are out to mitigate the downside. They also insist that any settlement must come with a binding agreement to keep any rehashing of history out of the press so as not to inflame the volatile temperaments of British taxpayers and their touchy Cabinet ministers.
Now, you needn’t have read all the Smiley novels to be engrossed in A Legacy of Spies. The story of the murdered pair of agents, Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold, is the main plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The character in the present day who could end up taking all the blame is an aging Peter Guillam, Smiley’s doggedly loyal assistant in Tinker. Guillam had been nominally in charge of running Leamas and Gold.
Without the details of those backstories, you won’t be lost. Or, if it’s been years and you hardly remember those books, you’ll still be fine. But if you are truly a newbie – and especially if the Cold War was before your time – you will simply wonder what all the fuss is about. That’s because A Legacy of Spies is literally a paperwork trail. It’s told mostly through a series of memos in a stack of paper files. This type of quest might seem not only dull – but also incomprehensible in the sheer tedium of the process. You see, in Smiley’s day, the record-keeping of spy work was keyed laboriously by a small army of clerks into manual typewriters – with carefully controlled numbers of copies imaged through layers of carbon paper loaded into the machines. The contents of file folders containing these memos were built up, in reverse chronological order, with each new installment of punched paper held in the folder by metal fasteners. The reader would have to search its contents by thumbing through the history of the “case” until its first page – the letter or memo or transcript that marked the beginning of the matter. Such files were stored on miles of shelving according to a strict numerical catalog. Access to these files was by a system of authorizations, signatures, live attendants, and physical locks. The inviolate sanctity of a top-secret file could be secured simply by placing it a safe to which only a privileged few had the combination. If such a file were to be cast into a fire – its information would be lost forever if, as might happen, its few readers also met with untimely ends.
Not so today. The digital world is a different kind of place.
Fast-forward to now. The latter-day lawyers of the Service seek to assign blame for the organization’s not-quite-forgotten misdeeds. (These sins are mistakes only in retrospect, mind you. The Cold Warriors thought they were preventing World War III. And perhaps they did.) They haul Peter Guillam out of retirement, hole him up in a secured room, and invite him to pore over stacks of files containing memos (the British say minutes) describing the events leading up to the deaths of Leamas and Gold. Guillam had written most of those himself. He pretends to be refreshing his memory so he can help build his legal defense and provide reliable testimony. In fact, he knows the lot by heart, including all his deliberate omissions from those records.
I believe I’ve avoided spoilers – perhaps to the point of being deliberately obscure? Smiley’s fans will be as fiercely loyal as Guillam. As they will expect, Smiley has not left the game. He is still the architect of the plot, the puller of strings, the philosopher-statesman. He works, as he ever did, for a better world. But he prevails in the one we live in because he hopes for the best in human nature while expecting – and planning for – the very worst.