Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Wot I'm reading: The Spy who went back to the Cold

JOHN LE CARRE: A Legacy of Spies

Crafty John Le Carré: after 55 years he produces a sequel to the book that made his name. Peter Guillam, one of George Smiley’s dogsbodies, long retired to Brittany, is summoned back to London to face an enquiry into the operation that ended at the Berlin Wall with the death of Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1963). Leamas’s son Christoph and the daughter of Leamas’s mistress Liz Gold are demanding ‘reparations’ for the death of their parents in a mishandled Cold War mission.

The story is narrated by Guillam, who recalls his work with Smiley and ‘Control’ (Le Carré’s version of James Bond’s ‘M’) and re-reads stashed files from the 1960s. His interrogators at MI6 still talk in that stilted, slightly camp way we are familiar with from the plays of Alan Bennett. This is also a sequel to Smiley’s People (1980), with the return, if only in memory, of ‘Circus’ friends and a few old enemies from those Glory Days. Bill Haydon (Le Carré’s version of Kim Philby) is talked about. The ‘spectre at the feast’ is George Smiley, who became a father figure to Guillam. Along with Peter we are kept guessing for much of the book as to whether ‘owlish’ George is still alive.

Alec Guinness as BBCTV's George Smiley
Recreating old service files is like rummaging through a dusty attic, except that these are matters of life and death – and treachery. When Guillam briefly meets the son of agent ‘Tulip’, whose defection from East Germany’s notorious Stasi he and Alec Leamas masterminded, Le Carré reminds us that the bleakness of Cold War lives on in the children of that era, children who are now old and still bitter.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are two of the greatest espionage novels ever written. A Legacy of Spies is not quite as sublime as those two – I found the switching between past and present tense an irritant - but John Le Carré at his ‘nearly best’ is streets ahead of almost every other thriller writer. Smiley is a lot like the fiendish Dr Fu Manchu: at the end I was wondering if this is the last the world will hear of him.