A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré reminds me of the work of three other authors. First, Terry Pratchett’s final Discworld novel, Raising Steam. The similarity here is a brilliant novelist, whose reputation was made with earlier novels, returning to familiar characters late in their career.
As with Pratchett, Le Carré does not hit his previous heights but for long term fans he does provide a satisfyingly low-key return to old favourites. In A Legacy of Spies, George Smiley does return, but only tangentially to the plot. His presence is to be welcomed by the reader rather than his actions generate tension for the reader. Indeed, it is one of the weaker parts of the novel that it has little in the way of dramatic tension driving the plot. The plot is rather an incidental device to justify the retelling of events and its resolution is both simple, brief and only little related to those retellings.
Second, A Legacy of Spies reminds me of Len Deighton’s trilogy of trilogies featuring Bernard Samson. It too saw past events repeatedly returned too and comes with a morally ambiguous ending. The espionage part of Deighton’s plot wrapped up easily but the lives of the characters left in a more complex state. As with Deighton, too, there is a handful of plot inconsistencies – in his case across a nine volume (later ten volume with a prequel) series, in Le Carré’s case with his previous stand out hit, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Which brings me to the third author this novel reminds me of, Anthony Price. Although successful in his time, Anthony Price never had the same fame as John Le Carré, perhaps because the complex and ambiguous dialogue of his books lent themselves poorly to successful TV or film adaptation.
But for my money, his version of the plot device powering A Legacy of Spies was rather better. In A Prospect of Vengeance Price took the same approach as seen in A Legacy of Spies: writing a novel in which the events of an earlier novel are returned to years later thanks to the investigative digging of outsiders into the past. However Price uses this device to present the reader with radically different potential interpretations of the past events. The plots of the two novels fit together as pleasingly as an insanely complicated wooden puzzle.
For John Le Carré, however, the reworking of past events through new eyes does not bring as much ingenious pleasure because there is little reorientation done for the reader. What’s more, the one moment where a major such twist seems to be on offer with characters believing something at odds with what we were told in the previous novel (see spoiler footnote below if you wish) seems, I think, to be just a plotting inconsistency as nothing is made of it in the end.
This all makes A Legacy of Spies an enjoyable, even a must, read for long term fans of Smiley and co but not a good starting place for those new to their world.
The plot inconsistency mentioned above is about Hans-Dieter Mundt’s switch to being a British double agent. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold this comes during the visit to Britain in which he tried to kill George Smiley and hence the suspicions over how easily he escaped Britain when supposedly the British state was in full pursuit of him.
But in A Legacy of Spies his switch comes on a subsequent visit to Britain, with his previous successful escape therefore left unexplained.
If you treat the earlier novel as correct, then for a moment in the newer novel a very dark turn of events flits into possible view – if Mundt had switched already on his earlier visit, is he able to carry out a murder on his second visit because Smiley has decided the murder is necessary? But this bleakness slips away and instead the switch in the Mundt story looks to be just a plotting inconsistency.
If you like this, you might also be interested in A Prospect of Vengeance.