'A Legacy Of Spies' Richly Revisits The Literary Legacy Of John le Carré

John le Carré. (Courtesy of Nadav Kandar)
John le Carré. (Courtesy of Nadav Kandar)

John le Carré made a man of me.

I remember going to see “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” in 1965 thinking it would be another “Goldfinger.” Or even the TV equivalent, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Whether I knew who the movie's co-star, Claire Bloom, was or not, there were hopes that she would also emerge from the ocean in a bikini, a la Ursula Andress in “Dr. No.” Even the name of the guy who wrote the book, John le Carré, had a certain exoticism.

But instead of Sean Connery as the debonair Bond, James Bond, there was Richard Burton as the seedy Leamas, Alec Leamas, “the gray shambling figure” staggering through the bleak black-and-white mean streets of London and East Germany. Where were those brilliant bursts of “Thunderball” color? The suave repartee? The derring-do? The bikinis? The heroic ending?

There must have been something going on, though, to cut through the adolescence. Was it Burton’s and Bloom’s soulful acting? Martin Ritt’s gritty anti-Hollywood cinematography? Or, as with 1965’s other pop-culture eye-opener, “Like a Rolling Stone,” did I just start to realize that entertainment could be art, and that art, in turn, could open a more sophisticated, honest window on the world?

In any event, the movie drove me to the insightful polish of John le Carré's prose, which in a few hundred pages wiped away the belief that America and England were still fighting the Good War (albeit one gone cold) and that our enemies were the spawn of Satan.

What a world the former spy, née David Cornwell, created — of characters with names like Control and Smiley; working for aptly named places like the Circus; with bureaus called the Cavalry boys, scalp-hunters and lamplighters. We’ll always have a soft spot for you, Mr. Bond, but let’s get serious.

It wasn’t obvious at the time but le Carré was also creating one of the great literary legacies of the late 20th century in his Cold War dualities of English-Russian and Israeli-Palestinian ideological duels, “half angels vs. half devils” as one of his characters says in his 1974 masterpiece, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” later to become a miniseries and a movie.

Le Carré couldn’t maintain that lofty standing once the Cold War ended and the world’s proxy wars paled in comparison to the West’s standoff with the Soviet Union. Even the horrors of terrorism spoke grotesquely for themselves, seemingly eluding any attempt at le Carré’s metaphor. (There’s been no shortage of films, though, made from his post-Cold War books — “The Constant Gardener,” “The Tailor of Panama,” “A Most Wanted Man,” “Our Kind of Traitor,” “The Night Manager.” The “Night Manager” folks are reportedly working on a remake of "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.")

So let us welcome le Carré back to the world of spooks and officious bureaucrats in his 23rd novel, “A Legacy of Spies.” (Spoiler alert: We can’t talk about this book without talking about the ending of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.”)

(Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
(Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The gist of the book fast-forwards to contemporary times as Peter Guillam, one of Smiley’s top people, has been called in by the new powers that be, to help them clean up the mess at the end of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” when Leamas and Liz Gold (Bloom) were gunned down by the Soviet mole placed in Soviet higher circles by Control. It turns out that Leamas had a son and Gold a daughter and they’re both threatening to sue. It seems that the world no longer accepts the end-justifies-the-means ethic, though le Carré is hardly convinced that's such a great thing.

Whether Smiley was in on Leamas’ murder or not isn’t clear because he’s gone missing. No one seems to know whether he’s dead or alive. Smiley also went missing from le Carré’s oeuvre because, he said after the BBC miniseries of “Tinker, Tailor” and “Smiley’s People,” that Alec Guinness had taken over the character. Even after Denholm Elliott and Gary Oldman had their turns as Smiley, it’s impossible to think of Smiley as anyone other than Guinness.

At any rate, the outline of the new book allows le Carré to revisit the characters from “A Call for the Dead,” “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” “Tinker, Tailor” and “Smiley’s People.” And revisit them with the stylistic panache that le Carré revels in.

Guillam is confronted by the usual officiciousness from the British bureaucrats, most of whom get Dickensian names or nicknames — like Guillam’s chief tormentor, Bunny, who makes it clear that he’ll throw Guillam under the train if it will help the Secret Service save face. Then there’s his detestable aide, Laura, who also makes no bones about her hatred of the ethos of "Pete" and his fellow cold warriors.

In the new Secret Service, all poetry has been stripped from life. “Joes” have become “assets” and the Smileys of the world are seen as corrupt for seeing the world in morally ambiguous terms. Bunny terms it “The historic blame game. Today’s blameless generation versus your guilty one. Who will atone for our father’s sins, even if they weren’t sins at the time?”

These are the waters that Guillam has to navigate through the 264 pages of “A Legacy of Spies.” While le Carré is masterful in that navigation it wouldn’t be fair to compare the book to the Leamas and Smiley books, which so brilliantly captured the political zeitgeist of the time. To do that now, the book would need to resonate with the Trump-Brexit-Putin era and this book was written when Trump’s victory seemed unimaginable.

Still, le Carré has created quite a legacy of spies, himself, and the revisitation of that legacy is a thrill on its own terms. And should someone be able to make sense of today’s horror stories from Washington to Moscow, with London in the middle, I wouldn’t bet against le Carré being the man.


Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



More from WBUR

Listen Live