Mastery makes for burdensome armour. Few writers ever achieve it, but those who do – and John le Carré, whose name has long been synonymous with the modern spy novel, certainly has – it must seem sometimes that this whole unfortunate business of reaching greatness has eaten all the years away. One day you're writing your first cloak-and-dagger thriller and then, a mere half-century later, you risk becoming immobilized by your own legend. The past grows a shadow from which it becomes harder and harder to escape.
A Legacy of Spies, le Carré's latest, is bound by its subject matter to undertake the perilous work of assessing legends – sifting the real from the mythical in order to determine what it all really meant. In the tradition of the author's best work, this is unapologetically a hard espionage novel, complete with a parade of secret-agency acronyms and operatives whose allegiance is delineated using multiple double negatives. But A Legacy of Spies is, to a far more affecting degree, a novel about taking stock of the journey as the boat nears the shore; a novel about the end of things.
For the first time in a quarter-century, le Carré returns to his most famous creation – the ageless spymaster George Smiley and his band of Cold Warriors, members of that infamous British secret-service cabal, the Circus. The novel stars (or rather, provides an epilogue for) Peter Guillam, one of Smiley's men. Now in his 80s and retired to the northwest coast of France, Guillam suddenly finds himself summoned back to London to face the bureaucratic and legal consequences of a botched operation from decades earlier. The children of those who died in that operation are after the truth (and compensation); they've gone to the courts to get it.
What follows is a kind of document-assisted flashback that makes up the bulk of the narrative. Compelled to recall the details of what went wrong all those years ago, Guillam sifts through the remaining memos and cables from that time. The story the documents tell will be familiar to le Carré completists, having featured in some of his previous Smiley novels, but here it is told anew, illuminating some of what the previous books left dark.
Like so much of le Carré's writing, A Legacy of Spies hits its stride and quickly becomes enveloped in its dry yet exhilarating realism. Fans of the author are unlikely to be intimidated by 200-some pages of secret government documents interspersed with the occasional dialogue or action break, but newcomers may well find the format abrupt. Myriad characters wander in and out of the narrative, many of them familiar to readers of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But occasionally, it becomes a little difficult to tell one turned-up overcoat collar from another.
Still, it's almost impossible to envision this kind of story told any other way. What lends le Carré's work its timelessness is the way in which it renders fully the emotional lives of men and women whose moral fabric has been warped by the elaborate lies their profession demands they live. They might die violent deaths but what resonates more profoundly is the way they often seem to slowly disintegrate well before the end arrives, victims of whatever sliver of humanness they were unable to suppress. With an expertise that has not dulled even as the author nears his 90th birthday, le Carré delivers characters who flirt with amorality but are never quite so easily categorized. We watch them struggle and, in this novel, the struggle centres on what can reasonably be salvaged from a life lived entirely in the shadows – what can be dragged out into the light and not instantly turn to vapour. "Sometimes I wonder whether it is possible to be born secret," Guillam wonders, "in the way people are born rich, or tall, or musical."
The novel is not without flaws: One of the central villains is so crass he borders on cartoonish; the ending is a little (though perhaps intentionally) unsatisfying; and the female characters are both given and made to contend with sexual proclivities that range from unlikely to creepy.
Still, A Legacy of Spies is a hard book to put down. Le Carré possesses a singular talent for making embassy cables read like car chases, and even readers wholly unfamiliar with Smiley and his Circus act are likely to find something quietly compelling in this tale of an old spymaster questioning whether any of it, in the end, really ever meant a damn. It's a daunting question, and carries within it the possibility of whole lives wasted. But le Carré has never been one for low stakes.
Omar El Akkad is the author of American War, which is a finalist for this year's Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.