The master spy novelist brings characters from five decades’ worth of books back to life, in this sequel — of a sort — to 1963’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.”

Share story

“A Legacy of Spies”

by John le Carré

Viking, 264 pp., $28

In John le Carré’s new book, “A Legacy of Spies,” the master spy novelist has performed a resurrection, bringing characters from five decades’ worth of books back to life. Some come back from the dead. Some live, but in a kind of twilight, having stepped back from the abyss of history. Others are prisoners of the current age.

They are all viscerally alive in this new installment in le Carré’s epic multivolume spy story, a saga of suspense, betrayal and heroism that has enthralled millions of readers worldwide.

“A Legacy of Spies” is a sequel to “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” the author’s heartbreaking 1963 best-seller about disgraced spy Alec Leamas. But characters from other books, notably his trilogy featuring the conscience-stricken spy George Smiley, make appearances. Le Carré knits his stories together so well, there’s nary a seam showing.

Peter Guillam narrates. A half-French, half-English ladies’ man who did the dirty work for Smiley in his youth, he has retired from intelligence work to his Breton farm. One day he gets a letter from British intelligence in London, a request for an in-person discussion, because “a matter in which you appeared to have played a significant role some years back has unexpectedly raised its head.” He makes the trip, expecting the worst, and he gets it.

Guillam is interrogated by young spies with a distinct lack of empathy for the old days (it’s a pleasure to watch the old spy thrust and parry with these know-it-alls). The matter at hand is the tragic case of British spy Leamas, who, at his masters’ request, portrayed himself as a man soured on his own intelligence service, a charade that drew East German intelligence agents to him as a potential recruit. Leamas’ real goal was to expose the mole in British intelligence, but he and his lover Liz Gold were shot dead trying to escape over the Berlin Wall.

Now Leamas’ son and Liz Gold’s daughter have threatened a lawsuit against the British government, one that would expose in embarrassing detail events that, in an age of truncated attention spans, would be very hard to explain. “Patriotism is dead, man. Patriotism is for babies,” Alec’s son Christoph rails at Guillam in an alcohol- and cocaine-fueled tirade. Christoph wants money. Liz Gold’s daughter wants justice and revenge.

As Guillam reviews events of long ago, the story that readers of “Spy” thought they knew becomes even more tragic, complicated by the dangerous predicament of an East German agent for the Brits, code-named Tulip. Long-dead officials make their case in memos, meeting minutes and documents. Some tell the truth. Most do not. Guillam revisits old haunts and comrades in arms. Is George Smiley still around? I’m not telling.

Flaws worth noting: Le Carré is a wizard at characterization, but sometimes, as with the loathsome young spy named Bunny, his visceral dislike of a character overwhelms subtlety. Telling a story from the past creates a certain distance, softening the suspense.

But these are minor complaints. This is a story with a resonant moral arc about a period of history that ground millions of people into dust. The question, as Guillam frames it, is “how much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom … before we cease to feel either human or free?” We’re still asking that question, and no one ever asked it better than John le Carré.