The world of spying is endlessly fascinating to writers, perhaps because – since no-one knows what they really do – you can have them do anything. The fact that nobody referred to MI6 as ‘the Circus’ before John Le Carré thought of doing so is irrelevant: the Circus it has become.
In Real Tigers, Mick Herron describes the environment at Slough House, the decrepit, anonymous London office where MI5’s cast-offs are sent. It is a place of ‘stains so long ignored, they’ve been absorbed into the colour scheme’. For all its greater apparent sheen, the milieu Le Carré depicts in A Legacy of Spies is just as shabby.
To take the lesser book first: in Herron’s third Jackson Lamb novel, recovering alcoholic Catherine Standish bumps – by chance – into an old lover. Except she knows that, in the intelligence services, there are no coincidences. She is abducted and her colleagues receive outrageous demands for her safe return. Lamb, who runs the rag-tag outfit, knows where lots of secret service bodies are buried, and someone wants Slough House closed down. They always do. They never achieve it. Violence ensues, much of it in an implausible underground battle at some archives in west London. The subterranean pyrotechnics stretch credulity and belong in an inferior story, which is a shame.
But just close your eyes for that bit: one of the pleasures of the Lamb stories is his delight in colourful language, as when one character sourly describes another as sitting at a table in a bar ‘like a malevolent fire hydrant’. Also, the new home secretary in his novel is Boris Johnson. Well, actually it’s Peter Judd but he looks and sounds the same as BoJo, with a carefully cultivated image as ‘a loose cannon with a floppy fringe and a bicycle’. He is every bit as self-serving as the real thing: on TV, he has an ‘artfully tousled haystack of hair and a plummy grin you’d have to be a moron or a voter not to notice concealed a degree of self-interest that would alienate a shark’. No debate there.
Le Carré’s latest novel is a sort of ‘origins’ piece. George Smiley’s willing young helper Peter Guillam is recalled (in retirement) to MI6’s ziggurat HQ in London (…’this monstrosity,’ thinks Guillam bitterly. ‘Welcome to Spyland Beside The Thames’) to answer some searching questions about his involvement in past operations. Although never specified, this would have to be set in the early 2000s for the chronology to work, as far as I can see. The Cold War was, at times, very cold with innocent blood spilt in the service of the greater good. But that doesn’t sit well with a new generation which has no real memory of the Berlin Wall. They are steeped, the oleaginous lawyer Bunny explains to Guillam, in the compensation culture: ‘Our new national sport. Today’s blameless generation versus your guilty one. Who will atone for our father’s sins, even if they weren’t sins at the time?’
In short: the children of two main characters (the spy Alex Leamas and the innocent, doomed Liz Gold) from a previous Smiley novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, now want a legal light shone on past secret deeds – and a chunk of cash would not go amiss, either. Guillam, who narrates most of A Legacy of Spies, is going to be the elderly fall guy in court for actions which seemed vital at the time but now look pointless and malign.
This is a nice idea, if seemingly inessential. But rather than being Le Carré running out of ideas and cannibalising his own past glories, it turns into a story of great depth and subtlety. Le Carré raises the stakes: the context he now offers for the events of perhaps his most famous novel makes the triple-bluff deception – brilliant first time round – even more breathtaking and sad.
Looking back, Smiley insists to Guillam: ‘We were never pitiless. We had the larger pity. Arguably, it was misplaced. Certainly it was futile. We know that now. But we did not know it then.’ But remember that it was Smiley who shouts: ‘The girl, where’s the girl?’ at the Wall just before the betrayed Leamas is killed there. Liz Gold was never going to survive in Smiley’s plan: his ‘larger pity’ wasn’t worth very much. But perhaps that’s really how it was.