A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré: A review

As a fan of John le Carré's George Smiley books of many years ago, I was intrigued to read in reviews of his latest book that he was getting the old gang together one last time. How could I possibly resist? Answer: I couldn't, so I immediately let this book jump the queue on my TBR list.

The book is relatively short, at around 300 pages, and is a quick read for that reason and simply because le Carré's prose flows so smoothly. Potential readers should be aware though that, in order to enjoy this book, one really does need familiarity with those earlier Smiley books, because the action in this one harkens back to those days when the Cold War was at its coldest and a physical wall was being built through Berlin to shut off contact with the West.

The time is the present and the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is in an uproar over the possibility of being sued by three children of people who died because of their work with the Circus. In order to defend - or insulate - themselves from such a lawsuit, they are reviewing the old files of cases that the dead were involved in, particularly one of Smiley's projects, Operation Windfall.

Meanwhile, in Brittany, Smiley's colleague and disciple, Peter Guillam, is living out his years of retirement on the family farmstead, along with a younger woman friend and her child. Into this bucolic scene drops a letter from the Circus summoning him to London for the purpose of reviewing files and telling the lawyers what he knows about what happened, lo those many years ago.

Peter finds that the present generation of spies in London has no memory of the Cold War and no appreciation of the choices that had to be made in those fraught days. He is pretty much the charming cad that he always was and a master of obfuscation, but in the end he finds its expedient to more or less cooperate with their investigation.

Much of the action of the book is told in flashbacks and in reviews of Agency notes and memos from the relevant period. We get to read the notes and memos as Peter does and they are fleshed out by his memories of events and people. I felt very nostalgic being once again in the company of Smiley, Alec Leamas, Toby Esterhase, Percy Alleline, Jim Prideaux, Peter Guillam, and, yes, Bill Haydon.

The characters are the strongest part of the story; the plot doesn't quite live up to their strength. Nevertheless, it is such an unadulterated pleasure to once again sit at the feet of the master. No one can match le Carré in the writing of the spy novel. I guess you can count me as an addict. I would rush to read anything that he writes in this genre. 

Even if this was not among his best efforts, it was still a thrill for me. Even le Carré's mediocre stuff is better than most writers' A game.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 


  1. Those who know say that he knows what he is talking about, and for that alone, Le Carré is worth reading, but those anticlimactic endings...Oh, how I hate them! Anyways, I'm glad that you took pleasure in reading this one even it wasn't entirely fulfilling.

  2. This will be my next book, for a reading group next week. Looking forward to it though I read those Cold War books so long ago. Don't know how much I remember.

    1. I'm sure I've forgotten a lot but I found that much of it came back to me as I read the Agency's memos and notes from that period and had Peter's memories to prompt me.


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