It’s been about a quarter century since John le Carré appeared to wrap up his cycle of stories about the tantalizingly inscrutable spymaster George Smiley and his cabal of British spooks locked in mortal struggle with Moscow Centre. The Secret Pilgrim (1990) in which the semi-retired Smiley waxed wise about the entanglements of espionage to spellbound recruits while their trainer reminisced to himself about dark deeds from the past, was a ripping good read but felt like an excuse for le Carré to clean out some unfinished drafts from the bottom of his drawer. It also felt like a warning, with the cynical old spies explaining just how morally compromised the West became during the just-concluded Cold War and not so subtly reminding them that the collapse of the Berlin Wall would hardly end the desire of nation-states to demand intelligence from spies and to not worry too much about how it was collected.
Since then, the arc of world history has certainly bent sinister, and that wouldn’t have surprised Smiley. Le Carré’s non-Smiley novels, like The Constant Gardener (2001) and The Night Manager (1993) have chronicled the post-Cold War chaos. Set in the grey borderlands of failed states and hollowed-out formerly great ones, they tend not to feature dueling ranks of spies but instead a batch of cold-eyed and amoral actors, arms smugglers and bankers and influence peddlers, who thrive amidst the collapse of old authorities and assumptions. Together they serve as an imperfect but often masterful survey of a world always falling to pieces and the wearied, outnumbered figures trying to beat back the darkness just for a bit.
The excitement felt by le Carré fans for A Legacy of Spies should be tempered a bit. Yes, the old master has brought some of the old gang out of retirement into the modern era. But it’s not quite the return of George Smiley that the advance publicity will claim. “Tubby, bespectacled, permanently worried”  Smiley will loom in the background for most of this briskly knotted novel, le Carré preferring to keep 1979’s elegant maze of a book, Smiley’s People, as the master’s true swan song.
The storyteller here is Peter Guillam, Smiley’s old protege. Supposedly retired, his instincts remain as hard-wired as ever, like the ex-Marine who can never get out of bed without snapping the sheets into hard-angled hospital corners. He doesn’t quite know why he is or was a spy, he just is:
How I came to be recruited to the Secret Intelligence Service in the first place — the ‘Circus’ as we Young Turks called it in those supposedly halcyon days when we were quartered, not in a grotesque fortress beside the River Thames, but in a fustian Victorian pile of red brick, built on the curve of Cambridge Circus — remains as much of a mystery to me as do the circumstances of my birth…
Guillam is trying to slip into a well-deserved dotage at his wind-swept farm in Breton when the past comes calling with a request from the current class of Her Majesty’s secret operatives: Report to London, double-time. Once there, the old spy is interrogated by a bracingly arrogant younger version of himself. The new intelligence gang wants to know what the old-timers were up to years ago with a program Guillam had assumed was long forgotten: Operation Windfall. Since no spook is ever truly out of the business, Guillam tries all his old counter-espionage stratagems to throw them off the trail. But eventually, he is run into the ground (“It’s over. I’ve fought to the last lie. I’m dead and I’m out of ammunition.”) and realizes that there is nothing for him to do but to own up and open that creaking door.
After a few crisp scenes of scene- and mood-setting to ensure that we’re back in le Carré’s dryly cynical frame of mind, the plot of A Legacy of Spies kicks into shape. Guillam brings his interrogators, led by the resolutely anti-romantic Laura, to Windfall itself. The decades-old safe house, its whereabouts, and budget buried deep in long-forgotten archives, remains the same “shabby, unrestored Victorian end-of-terrace house in a Bloomsbury side street” that Guillam remembers from Cold War London, a grubbier locale still rebuilding from Blitz damage and the economic privations of the pre-Thatcher years. Now, the safe house, code-named the Stables, lurks in the glistening billionaire’s citadel, “unchanged, unrepentant, a standing reproach to its shiny, prinked-up neighbors”, much like Guillam itself.
Once the Stables are open for sacking by the new gang, le Carré dials back to Windfall itself and the secrets that Guillam, Smiley, and their cohort did their best to keep hidden from prying eyes. Like so many stories from the Smiley novels, which often ran in tandem with rumors and legends passed about the British intelligence community, it’s about a mission with ambitious objectives, an absurdly high risk-reward ratio, and a few white-hot inflection points where human frailties threatened to scupper the best-laid plans of the Circus. Nobody comes out unscathed, and the final totaling up of real-life losses to vague and unspecified gains is close to heartbreaking.
Like the best le Carré protagonists, young Guillam is grumpy, rumpled, forever falling in love with the wrong woman at the worst time, and thinking 15 steps ahead of everyone around him. Things eventually go to hell, as they so often do in the Circus novels, which after all were something of a novelistic attempt to reckon with the aftermath of the Kim Philby affair and what it said about the state of the West. (A high-ranked British intelligence officer, Philby was a double-agent for the Soviets for decades, passing the KGB troves of intelligence and betraying numerous agents and missions, before defecting in 1963. After that, he became possibly the only person awarded both the Order of the British Empire and the Order of Lenin; le Carré refracted that story into a complex analysis of not just how Philby did it, but what drove him to betray his nation.)
Le Carré retains the knack for language, as searchlight-vivid as his plots, are knotted and obfuscatory. The book is studded with snappy little portraits, like the woman who is “the type of upper-class female go-getter the Circus blindly adores”, the sharp lawyer who bristles at the Circus’s clubby old Oxbridge ways (“I don’t do spy-speak and I’m not a boys’ club”), or sideways glances into the restless and unmoored life of the operative: “When the truth catches up with you, don’t be a hero, run … Extract French passport from dead letter box behind fire precautions notice. There is a calming ritual to escape.”
The accretion of detail is not so layered here as in some earlier novels; it’s as though le Carré has decided that while there’s really no reason to go back and recreate the entire secret architecture of the Circus, there are a few corners of the story still worth telling. Because in the end, who can resist the gnomic wisdoms and fogged motivations of Smiley once le Carré wheels him out near the conclusion? Guillam, at least, has come close to having enough. After blundering through the foolish plots of the past and all their sacrifices possibly suffered for naught in the cold new post-ideology world, Guillam wants reasons or at least answers. “It’s just a simple question,” he beseeches Smiley at one point. The old spy, never quite as cynical as he let on, answers, “I didn’t know we deal in simple questions.”
Although at heart a spy novel, A Legacy of Spies doesn’t deal in simple questions, either.