A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré

Erich Mayer

Lovers of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will meet old friends and revisit past intrigues.
A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré

Book cover image A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré via Viking.

A Legacy of Spies is Le Carré’s latest and, in his own words, the final spy thriller featuring those who worked with or opposed his iconic character, George Smiley. In the novel, a very British (21st century) espionage establishment is eager to distance itself from accusations of wrongdoing by its predecessor – fearing that the accusations will tarnish MI6’s reputation and diminish its power base. So the establishment sets out to uncover the suspected spectacular failure of a top-secret mission from the Cold War era – one which allegedly involved the now-retired Peter Guillam.

Lovers of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will meet old friends and revisit the intrigues of the Circus. For them, this book is a must. Le Carré has managed to bring the drama of the past into the present as lies, half-truths and innuendo are traded between ‘Bunny’ Butterfield, a legal adviser to the chief of MI6, and Peter Guillam, erstwhile sidekick of George Smiley.

‘I am rather concerned,’ says Bunny in the early stages of interrogating Guillam, ‘by certain aspects of your past. That is to say an impression could be created by skilful counsel … that in the course of your career you were associated with quite an exorbitant number of deaths, and were callous about them. That you were assigned … to covert operations where the deaths of innocent people was considered an acceptable, even necessary outcome. Even, who knows, a desirable one.’

Slowly, as each layer of lies is peeled away, another, deeper layer of falsification emerges, although in the end we learn what really happened and perhaps Bunny does also.

One purpose of a book review such as this is to help prospective buyers make an informed choice. The big question here is not whether this novel is a worthy full stop to the Smiley saga, which it is, but whether A Legacy of Spies can be read as a stand-alone book. It seems to have been written with both objectives in mind but to succeed as the former it must inevitably fall short as the latter.

With that in mind perhaps anyone who has not read a George Smiley book but likes spy thrillers should read an early George Smiley book before venturing into this one. While they were written many years ago, they are not outdated. After all, one of the first and best ever English spy stories is The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers – published in 1903. It still makes good reading today even though the German villains of that era before the first World War are long since gone and none of the modern spy gadgets were then available. So there is nothing untoward in recommending The Spy Who Came In From The Cold to prospective Smiley readers even though that book was published in 1963.

But that is the thing about Le Carré – he was as great in the 60s as he is now. A Legacy of Spies is as good as the best of his Smiley books. But beware – Le Carré’s novels are multilayered, intricate and complex while presented in the deftly written prose that makes him one of the most respected spy novelists of several generations. This novel is for Smiley fans everywhere.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

A Legacy of Spies

Category: Espionage Mysteries | Suspense & Thriller | Crime Mysteries
Published by Viking
Sep 05, 2017 | 272 Pages | ISBN 9780735225121

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog humblecomment.info