John Le Carre’s latest spy thriller A Legacy of Spies takes place during the Cold War but has lessons for today’s world. In fighting evil and terrorism Western democracies never seem to ask, “how much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom, would you say, before we cease to feel either human or free?”
In A Legacy Of Spies, an retired British intelligence officer, Peter Guillam, is suddenly pulled in and asked to defend his actions during two top secret operations in East Berlin many decades ago. The grown children of those killed in the operation have somehow gotten hold of previously secret records and are suing the British Government and Peter personally. The British Government is more that happy to throw Peter under the bus, as long as things can be settled quietly and without too much fuss.
However, the aging spy is not the old fool he pretends to be, and is the keeper of secrets within secrets withing secrets. His only question is which ones, if any, should he reveal?
The timeline of A Legacy Of Spies switches back and forth between modern England, and Cold War East Germany. In the old days, Peter was a master spy whose good looks and charm made him especially valuable for his ability to recruit and seduce female agents. That is why he was chosen to deal with a beautiful East German, code-named “Tulip”, who has been providing the British with their most valuable information. However, even all these years later, Peter is not sure who was seducing who and if he ever knew the real story of Tulip.
John Le Carre, whose real name is David Moore Cornwell takes the long view of espionage, having just celebrated his 86th birthday. Before he was a novelist, David Moore Cornwell himself worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service. In his lifetime there has been the rise and fall of both the Nazi regime and the Soviet empire. His novels seem to always ask the question, that if all evil empires eventually fall, should we allow ourselves to become evil to fight them? Americans, of course, have recently answered “Yes” to that question. Guantanamo prison, NSA surveillance, The Patriot Act and the CIA’s “dark prisons” all show that Americans quickly and easily gave up the freedoms their ancestors had fought for.
But John Le Carre does not give the reader easy answers. The East German regime was evil, and was perfectly willing to shoot it’s own citizens for nothing more than trying to move to West Germany for a better life.
There is also the overriding despondency that many Cold War era British Intelligence agents feel that perhaps everything they did was useless. In John Le Carre’s novels, Bill Haydon is high ranking British spy who, in reality, was a Soviet agent giving all the secrets away. In real life, this person was Harold Adrian Russell “Kim Philby”. From 1945 to 1965 Kim Philby worked for British Intelligence but the entire time was a KGB agent. While the fictional Bill Haydon was punished, the real life Kim Philby escaped to the Soviet Union and was awarded the Medal of Lenin.
Lovers of John Le Carre novels will be happy that in A Legacy of Spies many of the characters they have come to know over the years make an appearance and we find out how their lives turned out. Of course, the ever elusive George Smiley (who may or may not still be alive) might still be pulling the strings of the entire intelligence community behind the scenes. Or is that just all the old spies being paranoid?
At age 86, John Le Carre’s writing is still sharp, complex and fascinating. His characters are always multifaceted individuals trying desperately to be more than pawns in a very dangerous world.