At the end of John le Carré’s 1990 novel “The Secret Pilgrim,” aging spy trainer Ned wraps up his reminiscing by declaring that his mentor — the ultimate Cold Warrior and British Secret Service legend George Smiley — is a man who “hates nostalgia, even if he’s part of other people’s.”
That novel was Smiley’s swan song, but since then Le Carré has more than capably gotten by without him, creating new heroes to fight new battles against new enemies.
For those of us who tracked and relished Smiley’s clandestine exploits, he remains part of our nostalgia: gone but fondly remembered.
Now, 27 years after allowing him to shuffle off gracefully, Le Carré has brought Smiley back in an intricately plotted and richly satisfying new novel.
Following “The Pigeon Tunnel,” a memoir that divulged selective secrets, “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.
As with “The Secret Pilgrim,” much of this novel involves looking back and weighing up.
Ex-spook Peter Guillam, Smiley’s “gatekeeper and trusted disciple,” receives a letter at home in his French farmstead summoning him to London. In a top-floor office of the new-look Circus — that is, British intelligence — Peter relives his involvement in “half a century of licensed skulduggery,” and then finds himself grilled by two legal inquisitors for specific information, namely his pivotal role in Operation Windfall and the mysterious disappearance of all files relating to it.
Returning to an old safe house that has been converted into an illicit archive, Peter embarks on a fact-finding trawl through incriminating documents, to replay and reinterpret a high-stakes mission behind the Iron Curtain and its explosive aftermath. He sifts the damage caused by double agents and the wreckage of a doomed love affair, recalls loyal allies and murderous foes.
But as he tries to make sense of his own history, a vengeful blast from the past reappears and closes in.
Peter reflects on his career but so, too, does his creator. Le Carré taps into his two most successful novels, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” reacquainting us with all the main Circus performers, such as Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, “in-house traitor” Bill Haydon — and of course mild-mannered, quick-witted spy supremo George Smiley. Unfortunately Smiley’s “ever-faithless wife” Ann is given only a mention.
“A Legacy of Spies” skillfully straddles past and present: It reads like a polished period piece within a modern framework.
Peter’s interrogators update his antiquated spy-speak (“joes being agents. We say asset these days”) — 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.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
A Legacy of Spies
By: John le Carre
Publisher: Viking, 264 pages, $28.