A Legacy of Spies – John Le Carré

Well, the critics really, really loved this.

They gushed and they gushed and they gushed. Then they gushed some more. I thought it was OK, but certainly didn’t mention a first gush, never mind the repetitions…

This is a spy novel where the author’s favorite (or most famous) character, George Smiley, is always in the background. But in the center of the stage is Peter Guillam, an ex spy, retired and living in France. One day, he is dragged back to the establishment by litigation from family members of some who died in the Cold War. Guillam and others are blamed, and the Secret Service is trying to cover its backside. Just what was going on between Guillam and Smiley, and the other spooks? All will be revealed.

The narrative flits from past to present, in nice flowing language which manages to glide over the death and tragedy unfolding in its pages. Then you realize what has happened, and you go back and read it again. Chilling.

The lead character is a good one: likeable, a bit of a rogue, and with his own (flawed) moral compass.

The atmosphere, especially when the book touches on the Cold War events, is terrific. The modern perspective is best when the author shows us the hard edge of the sneaky civil service, and a different type of dicing with death.

A Legacy of Spies is good, but not this author’s best work. Oh, and for the avoidance of doubt, it is still absolutely worth reading. Just don’t let all that gushing get in your way.

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A Delicate Truth – John Le Carre

This is a story of power and corruption, set in the time of the last Labor government in the UK and the War on Terror. A joint operation between official British forces and mercenary USA forces in Gibraltar goes badly wrong. The path to the operation and the cover-up are exposed, slowly and beautifully, by a writer at the top of his profession. It’s a painful tale, exquisitely told.

Le Carre is able to create a three dimensional character with just a line or two of taut text. He easily and comprehensively paints a portrait of troubled emotions with the same efficiency. Similarly, he gives an insight to the world of the civil servant that oozes authenticity, and an all too British flavor to certain ridiculous aspects of it all. Finally, the political background – complete with sharp observations on it – is well done without becoming overbearing. We know what side of the fence the author stands and he doesn’t ram it down his readers’ throats.

If there is a criticism I would level at the book, it is the sense that the ending is rushed. It’s almost as if he was writing to a specified length, and had to wrap the story up in a compressed manner. Despite that, the overwhelming impression was favorable.

This is a book populated by real people with real motives, real emotions, and real problems. Not all of them are easily or peacefully solved. This is a book to be savored; do not skip any of it!

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