Friday September 08, 2017

Should I Read It? George Smiley returns in John le Carré's 'A Legacy of Spies'

The most celebrated duo in spy fiction, author John Le Carré and his protagonist George Smiley, are reunited in a new novel delving into the Cold War.

The most celebrated duo in spy fiction, author John Le Carré and his protagonist George Smiley, are reunited in a new novel delving into the Cold War. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen 9:06

Master spy writer John le Carré is back with another puzzle for his beloved George Smiley and Peter Guillam. But instead of a new mission, his now aged characters are revisiting and reframing the past.

Le Carré's new novel, A Legacy of Spies, was released this week to much anticipation and some curiosity. It's been more than 25 years since le Carré wrote a new a Smiley story, but as Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne tells host Brent Bambury, even at 85, le Carré's humour and style are as sharp as ever.

"It's extremely well written," Toyne says. "This is genre fiction in the sense that they're novels about spies and espionage, but I think the argument is past now about whether John le Carré is a genre writer or a literary writer."

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English writer and spy novelist John Le Carre in 1965. (Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images)

  
About the book

   
A Legacy of Spies is
le Carré's 24th novel, and the eighth time he's written about George Smiley and his crew. While it's a brand new story, it's also a sequel and a prequel to his 1963 Cold War classic The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

It's a prequel in that it gives the backstory of the The Spy Who Came In From The Cold's plot and characters.

It's a sequel in the sense that the story takes place 50 years after the events that "resulted in the death of the best British secret agent I ever worked with, and the innocent women for whom he gave his life," to quote Peter Guillam from Legacy's very first page.

John le Carre Novels

'A Legacy of Spies' pulls story threads from 'The Spy Who Came In From The Cold' and 'Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy,' two of John le Carré's most popular and most beloved novels.

"It's set around about 2010. It couldn't be any closer to present day than that, because none of the main characters would possibly still be alive," Toyne says with a laugh. "As it is, George Smiley must be more than 100 years old."

The story begins with Peter Guillam, the former protegé and right-hand man of British special intelligence honcho George Smiley, being recalled by the Secret Service.

After reporting to the new 'Circus' HQ, Guillam learns they are being sued by the children of people who died during an official operation, the one detailed in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

"The story takes place in two time frames," Toyne says. "Partly in Peter Guillam's present day, around about 2010, and then partly 50 years earlier. It's a combination of him reading old file reports and imagining himself back into the time."

  
Rethinking past deeds

     
A Legacy Of Spies is, in a sense, a contemporary Cold War thriller in which le Carré forces his characters to rethink past actions.

"He's absolutely making a moral point, and that was one of the strengths of the book," Toyne says.

"His argument is that often the ends justify the means, and certainly that's what the spooks in the late '50s early '60s felt about their work. And yet as time goes by, and you look back on it, you have to realize that everyone thinks they're the good guys."

Berlin Wall 1961

The first guard house at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie was the name given by the Allies to the crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War. (Handout/AP)

As Guillam makes his way through old reports and distant memories, he asks himself if the murders, double-crosses and collateral damage was worth it.

In other words, 50 years later, did it make a difference?

   
But should I read it?

    
George Smiley's presence is felt throughout
A Legacy of Spies but few words are dedicated to what he's up to now.

Toyne says his appearance reminds her of another pop-culture icon whose reappearance fans had to wait more than 30 years to experience.

"It sort of reminded me a bit of Luke Skywalker suddenly appearing at the end of the new Star Wars movie after having been this off-screen presence looming for the whole thing."

John le Carré's 'Circus' and the Star Wars universe make for an unexpected but apt comparison. They've both been around for decades, any new installments are hotly anticipated, both have avid fans and both offer sequels and prequels.  

Legacy of Spies

(Penguin Random House)

Millions have watched and enjoyed The Force Awakens without having seen the other Star Wars titles. Similarly, A Legacy of Spies stands alone as a solid, enjoyable read.

Toyne is quick to praise le Carré's latest — and probably last — book, but when it comes to a recommendation, it's a yes with some caveats.

"I'm going to cheat," she says.

"I think is an excellent novel. I really enjoyed it … but I think that the enjoyment is so dependent on you, as a reader, having some knowledge and affection for the cast of characters like George Smiley and Peter Guillam.

"You should read it, but if you have no knowledge of John le Carre's work, I can't imagine why you would start with this novel as opposed to any one of his other 23 novels."

Day 6 has two copies of  John le Carré's new novel to give away. To enter our random draw, send an e-mail to day6@cbc.ca with A Legacy of Spies in the subject line. Be sure to include your mailing address. We'll pick two winners at random before next week's show.