In August of 1961, a 30-year-old British intelligence agent named David Cornwell looked on with “disgust and terror” as the Berlin Wall went up. Cornwell, who had published two previous, little-noticed novels, felt such rage at that moment in Berlin that he spent the next five weeks writing a novel that began and ended with good people being shot dead at the infamous concrete barrier. The book was written, as required by his agency’s policy, under a pen name, John le Carré. Published in 1963, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” became an international bestseller and, as le Carré, Cornwell would become the preeminent spy novelist of his time.
Le Carré is 85 now and has a new book, “A Legacy of Spies,” his 24th novel. If “Legacy” isn’t among Le Carré’s very best, it’s entirely readable and often ingenious, in part because it amounts to a sequel, more than 50 years later, to “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.”
The earlier book focused on an English operative named Alec Leamas who infiltrates the East German spy agency — he is accepted as a defector although in truth he’s a double agent — but whose deception is finally found out. Several of Leamas’s colleagues, minor figures in the first book, became major figures in later ones, notably spymaster George Smiley and a young agent named Peter Guillam.
In “A Legacy of Spies” Guillam is retired and living in France where he owns a farm and has taken his young housekeeper as his lover. Then he’s abruptly summoned back to London, where trouble waits. Three people who died during the operation detailed in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” left a surviving child; amazingly enough, all three, now well into middle age, are suing British intelligence, seeking damages for their parents’ deaths. Le Carré clearly views with scorn the contrast between the courage of the parents and the greed of their offspring.
Because George Smiley can’t be found, one of the survivors is suing Guillam, although he was far from being the architect of Leamas’s failed operation. As Guillam searches his memory, pores over old intelligence reports and answers the questions of government lawyers, we learn much more about the deceptions at the heart of the 1963 novel.
“A Legacy of Spies” thus operates on two levels. It reconstructs Leamas’s doomed operation even as it shows Guillam 50 years later trying to escape punishment for actions hailed as heroic at the time. The novel can be challenging as it often leaps between past and present, but le Carré’s books usually repay our patience. This one does, as Guillam’s troubles extend beyond the lawsuit to the murder of his friends, an attempt on his own life, corruption in high places, a search for Smiley and an unexpected life as a fugitive.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (1974), often called le Carré’s finest work, can at times be baffling but we push on to its brilliant ending — when Smiley unmasks a traitor near the top of British intelligence — because we know le Carré is taking us as deep inside the murky world of espionage as we’re ever likely to venture. It’s a world where no one can be trusted, little is what it seems to be and the good often suffer while the guilty thrive. Le Carré knows the spy game too well to glorify it.
Le Carré’s work is often praised for its authenticity but perhaps not often enough for his lovely writing. Here are samples from the new novel:
“The voice is knife-thin like the man — nasal, monotonous, and irritable as a spoilt child’s.”
“The tortured are a class apart. You can imagine — just — where they’ve been, but never what they’ve brought back.”
The elusive Smiley, found and asked what book he’s reading: “Oh my dear boy, don’t even ask. An old spy in dotage seeks the truth of ages.”
Few writers publish first-rate novels for 50 years or more. Death claims some while others see their skills or their energy fade with the decades. In this country, Philip Roth, a contemporary and admirer of le Carré, is another member of that elite. The two men’s subject matter could hardly be more different but since the 1960s both have combined literary excellence with tireless productivity. Roth recently retired from writing novels, and if le Carré should make “A Legacy of Spies” his last, it would be an honorable exit.
Patrick Anderson writes regularly about thrillers and mysteries for The Washington Post.
By John le Carré
Penguin Random House. 264 pp. $28