Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, has retired to his family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London are to be scrutinised by a generation with no memory of the Cold War. Somebody must be made to pay for innocent blood once spilt in the name of the greater good.
What I Thought:
Until The Night Manager showed up on TV, with Mr Hiddleston smouldering away in the title role, I think spy thrillers had a bit of a reputation as old hat – how could a gritty, morally ambiguous story of shadowy men and women fighting the Cold War possibly resonate with our delicate, modern sensibilities?
In A Legacy of Spies, John le Carré takes a brilliant approach to the deeds and misdeeds of George Smiley and his colleagues – by not ignoring the generation that came after, but by putting them centre stage, judging the means and methods of an earlier and more precarious time. And while the book focuses on Cold War espionage, it really does have something to say about modern life and our propensity to re-examine deeds from the past and judge them through our modern filter. Certainly no-one would argue that some of the methods employed by the world’s most secretive agencies were ‘right’ by modern standards, but in a time when there was genuine danger of nuclear war, who is to say what was and what was not acceptable?
If you’re looking for answers to that question, then this is not the book for you as Peter Guillam, as a former spy, is not inclined to give you the answer. Instead, he takes us through his official reports, created during Operation Windfall, and then tells us the truth – or at the very least the half-truth. By the end of the book questions still remain, but about those you’ll have to make up your own mind!
I very much enjoyed the style of A Legacy of Spies, the inclusion of correspondence and reports filed while the main story was going on, and although obviously not with every document, Peter’s thoughts about them – sometimes even a one-line interjection by him. In this way, the action builds at a good pace and as Peter witholds information from the people who would happily sell him out to the courts, there is a a sense of being one of the gang – he’s happy to tell the reader some semblance of the truth and we’re one step ahead of the lawyers…
Having read this book, and having watched The Night Manager, I’d be happy to go back to John le Carré’s back catalogue seeing as it does include some of the best novels in the spy thriller genre – perhaps a little moral ambiguity would be good for us?
This post is also part of a blog tour to support A Legacy of Spies, so please do check out some of the other fantastic blogs taking part.
Please note: I was sent a copy of this book to enable participation in the blog tour. All opinions are, as ever, my own.