George Smiley played by Alec Guiness.

John Le Carre's new novel is a brilliant treat for loyal fans

A Legacy of Spies sees George Smiley return to print
September 12, 2017

This is a strange book—a kind of prequel to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, told partly in flashback. Lawyers acting for MI6 are investigating the operation described in The Cold. People were killed and the service is worried about threats of litigation. They track down the retired spy Peter Guillam and as they interrogate him about his involvement, the story unfolds.

Formally it’s quite unusual, as personal reminiscences are mixed up with long quotations from intelligence reports. More jarring, perhaps, is the return to print of those seminal characters George Smiley (played by Alec Guinness on television in 1979) and Alec Leamas (played by Richard Burton in the 1965 film adaptation of The Cold).

Le Carré once complained that Guinness had effectively stolen Smiley from him, and reading this volume it’s impossible not to hear both Guinness and Burton’s voices ringing out of the page at you. Fine voices for an author to have at his disposal, but it gives the book a strong flavour of literary archaeology, a sense that’s enhanced by the narrative references to Le Carré’s earliest novel, Call for the Dead (1961).

Is it all a little too elegiac? Perhaps. Even so, it’s brilliantly done and very enjoyable, although a knowledge of the back catalogue is required. The ending, where Smiley’s thoughts turn to Europe, will be politically divisive. But then who could possibly argue with Alec Guinness?

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré  is published by Penguin (£20)