John Le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies shows us what happens when history’s unappeasable ghosts force their way into your life and demand the reckoning. Not just a ‘late’ work but a world in which justice is so long delayed that vengeance uncovers every secret thing, and the codes of law are no guarantee of good order but come-ons in a rigged casino. It is as if Orestes has slept through the alarm-clock one time too many and wakes to find that his Furies are all the more vile for being unexamined.
The title is – I assume deliberately – a very distant echo of The Discovery of Witchcraft, the Elizabethan guide to the deceptions of the witch-hunt. (No coincidence that the tainted intelligence at the centre of Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor spy-hunt was code-named ‘Witchcraft’ (there’s no defence for it . . .)). The historical detective as witch-hunter, besides being a plausible predecessor of spy-master fiction, is a seriously under-explored sub-genre that awaits exploitation. There’s another genre at work here too: all adventures into the other world begin with the absence of the father, and in Legacy Peter Guillam’s road to resolution leads him on a hunt for his enigmatically missing old master George Smiley. Fun fact: Rupert Davies, the very first celluloid incarnation of Smiley (in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) also appears in the cult Vince Price vehicle Witchfinder General – not as a hunter but as collateral damage of the obsessions of others. Peter Guillam would have sympathised.