I reviewed John Le Carre’s The Spy who came in from the Cold back in March. When reading it I hadn’t realised that Le Carre had already returned, 55 years later, to the events in ‘the Spy’ with the publication of his 2017 novel A Legacy of Spies. ‘Legacy’ centres on the character of Peter Guillam, who, if memory serves, was a peripheral (at best) character in the Spy. Guillam is now living in Brittany, enjoying his retirement, when he’s summoned back to London (you never leave the service!) to go over some old case files, involving Alec Leamas, the chief protagonist of the Spy, which are causing the secret service – a.k.a. ‘The Circus’ – some bother.
The story of the Spy is told in a clever way, mainly via the debriefing of a supposed defector. Legacy is equally clever in terms of its storytelling, using the present time, flashback, and official and unofficial reports dating from the era of the Spy. Through these means were are brought into the events leading up to and including those that unfold in the Spy, putting us both in the chair of scheming, spymaster Smiley, and on the ground with Leamas and Guillam as they play their respective roles in Smiley’s schemes.
The means by which the story is told also allows for multi-dimensional perspectives on events, which sometimes leave you wondering what the truth is. Those who know the Karla trilogy or have seen the movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will know that some within the Circus suspected it of being infiltrated by a Soviet agent. This mood of distrust pervades Legacy and in so doing, Le Carre not only binds Legacy to the Spy, but also with the Karla Trilogy making it a weightier and elaborate affair than it might otherwise have been.
If you’ve read the Spy then Legacy is a must read. If you’ve not read the Spy, read it. Then read Legacy. Both are fairly short books (Legacy clocking in at around 265 pages) so reading them back-to-back wouldn’t be too much of an ordeal. Quite the opposite, in fact. I don’t think one needs to read the Karla Trilogy to enjoy Spy and Legacy but it would certainly make for a more rewarding reading experience.