In August of 1961, a 30-year-old British intelligence agent named David Cornwell looked on with â€œdisgust and terrorâ€ as the Berlin Wall went up.
Cornwell, who had published two previous, little-noticed novels, felt such rage at that moment in Berlin that he spent the next five weeks writing a novel that began and ended with good people being shot dead at the infamous concrete barrier.
The book was written, as required by his agencyâ€™s policy, under a pen name, John le CarrÃ©. Published in 1963, â€œThe Spy Who Came in from the Coldâ€ became an international best-seller and, as le CarrÃ©, Cornwell would become the pre-eminent spy novelist of his time.
Le CarrÃ© is 85 now and has a new book, â€œA Legacy of Spies,â€ his 24th novel. If â€œLegacyâ€ isnâ€™t among Le CarrÃ©â€™s very best, itâ€™s entirely readable and often ingenious, in part because it amounts to a sequel, more than 50 years later, to â€œThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold.â€
The earlier book focused on an English operative named Alec Leamas who infiltrates the East German spy agency â€” he is accepted as a defector although in truth heâ€™s a double agent â€” but whose deception is finally found out.
Several of Leamasâ€™ colleagues, minor figures in the first book, became major figures in later ones, notably spymaster George Smiley and a young agent named Peter Guillam.
In â€œA Legacy of Spiesâ€ Guillam is retired and living in France where he owns a farm and has taken his young housekeeper as his lover. Then heâ€™s abruptly summoned back to London, where trouble waits.
Three people who died during the operation detailed in â€œThe Spy Who Came in from the Coldâ€ left a surviving child; amazingly enough, all three, now well into middle age, are suing British intelligence, seeking damages for their parentsâ€™ deaths.
Le CarrÃ© clearly views with scorn the contrast between the courage of the parents and the greed of their offspring.
Because George Smiley canâ€™t be found, one of the survivors is suing Guillam, although he was far from being the architect of Leamasâ€™ failed operation.
A Legacy of Spies
By John le CarrÃ©
Penguin Random House, $28
As Guillam searches his memory, pores over old intelligence reports and answers the questions of government lawyers, we learn much more about the deceptions at the heart of the 1963 novel.
â€œA Legacy of Spiesâ€ thus operates on two levels. It reconstructs Leamasâ€™ doomed operation even as it shows Guillam 50 years later trying to escape punishment for actions hailed as heroic at the time.
The novel can be challenging as it often leaps between past and present, but le CarrÃ©â€™s books usually repay our patience. This one does, as Guillamâ€™s troubles extend beyond the lawsuit to the murder of his friends, an attempt on his own life, corruption in high places, a search for Smiley and an unexpected life as a fugitive.
â€œTinker Tailor Soldier Spyâ€ (1974), often called le CarrÃ©â€™s finest work, can at times be baffling but we push on to its brilliant ending â€” when Smiley unmasks a traitor near the top of British intelligence â€” because we know le CarrÃ© is taking us as deep inside the murky world of espionage as weâ€™re ever likely to venture.
Itâ€™s a world where no one can be trusted, little is what it seems to be and the good often suffer while the guilty thrive. Le CarrÃ© knows the spy game too well to glorify it.