A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

Reading Group Guide: A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

Article published on November 6, 2017.

In the first instalment in a regular new feature here on Nudge, Paul Burke offers a reading group guide to A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré:

In A Legacy of Spies, George Smiley returns, albeit only briefly, in a sort of farewell from John le Carré to his greatest character. Here are some of the talking points that arise from the novel which may help to spark some interesting readers’ group discussions. You might also like to read the review of A Legacy of Spies and the feature on John le Carré that have previously been published on Nudge as a further aid to your group’s consideration of the book.

  1. In speaking about his new novel, le Carré has drawn analogies between the Cold War world and post-Brexit Britain’s relationship with Europe. The Berlin Wall was the physical manifestation of the ideological divide and, of course, there has always been the English Channel. Do you see the relevance of this comparison in light of events both fictional and real?
  2. Peter Guillam has always been an adjunct to George Smiley, but he comes into his own in A Legacy of Spies. As the narrator, is this novel his story? What becomes apparent about his character throughout the novel? Does Guillam justify his actions in the past or show remorse? For most of the novel, Smiley is a presence in the background, since he doesn’t appear until the very end, why do you think le Carré decided to use Smiley in this way?
  3. What has changed within the Circus/Service during the fifty years since the height of the Cold War? Does having different enemies matter?
  4. What did we learn about the events of Operation Windfall and did our understanding of the events described in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold change?
  5. What is the motivation of the Service in looking into Operation Windfall and other prior events? Is it a chance to restore justice to the families damaged by the actions of British Intelligence in the past? Hindsight? A new moral sense of what is right? An exercise in damage limitation? Or perhaps camouflage for other problems (a distraction from rendition/Iraq war)?
  6. What is the difference between hindsight and retrospection when it comes to the investigation?
  7. Is it possible that the new generation of spies might have forgotten the Cold War? Is Guillam too defensive and secretive when asked questions about the past?
  8. What does the novel tell us about what we learn, or don’t learn, from history?
  9. Is John le Carré still a thorn in the side of the Secret Intelligence Service? A sort of public conscience? Do his sympathies lie with the Cold War warriors, the modern Service or a wider sense of morality within politics and international relations?
  10. It is said that the past is what we make it, is this true? What is truth in A Legacy of Spies? Is there more than one truth? Do secrets need to come out?
  11. Were our Cold War warriors too busy fighting the Cold War to examine their behaviour, to place it in a proper moral context? Do the players deserve better consideration for their patriotism than the system/governments that created the framework in which they worked? Did they believe what they were doing was for the greater good? Is it different now?
  12. Early on, le Carré notes the difference in the language of the new Service and the Cold War (a demonstration of the difference between then and now). How does Guillam react when he is faced with the representatives of the Service? As le Carré not only mimicked the voices of the Cold War but sometimes defined our perception of it, how does he deal with the new language? How does this represent change?


Paul Burke
October 2017

If your reading group would be interested in test driving one of our new guides, then please do get in touch.


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