Summary: A follow up, along with back story for le Carré first big novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
About the time the movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came out, I started reading John le Carré. Over a couple years I read most of the George Smiley novels. There are a few I have to finish, but honestly I thought I had finished them all until was looking when I picked up A Legacy of Spies.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold I think was my favorite. I have re-read it again since the initial reading. I really like le Carré’s writing, but there is a hopelessness to the book that is brought about by the moral ambiguity and the methods that the spies in the books use. George Smiley attempts to be right. And he knows what is right. But he doesn’t always do what is right to accomplish the right ends. Despite this, Smiley has an awareness of what right and wrong are. But that is not true of his bosses or the lawyers or politicians or frankly anyone else that is around him.
The Legacy of Spies is a follow up to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It is set long after the initial book ends. Part of the point is that those that are now looking into the work of that earlier era do not have any of the real memories of what the era was like.
Legacy of Spies centers around Peter Guillam, a protegé of Smiley’s and one of the very few that actually knew what was going on with the story that was told in The Spy Who Comes in From the Cold. There is a good bit of back story here that fills in some holes, but also reminds those that read the Smiley books long ago, what the story was all about.
As with many of le Carré’s books, there is a lot of tedious detail. The detail is part of the method of the story, but it also proves a point. Bond is never seen doing paperwork or talking to lawyers. But actual spies did paperwork and spend a good bit of time talking to lawyers or internal investigators.
Smiley is not in this book until right at the end. And this is one of those books that was okay throughout. I was always going to finish it, but it wasn’t one that I sped through. However, right at the end of the book, there is a pay off in pulling together threads and reminding you that le Carré really is a great writer.
There is still a hopelessness here that does not make me want to pick up the missing books or re-read some of the books I have previously read. But I appreciate the artistry of le Carré as a writer. Good writers communicate more than just a simple story. If le Carré was interested in a simple story he would write a different type of book. He is communicating moral ambiguity, the problems not just with the different sides of the cold war, but the methods that made the cold war problematic no matter what side you were on. And Smiley, while a bit too good I think, did love even those that fought against him.
There is no real question about le Carré’s politics. But the politics that he communicates are not the primary thing he communicates. It is the method of the fight that degrades us all that gets communicated most clearly.