Friday, September 8, 2017

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies
Viking Press © 2017 David Cornwell
ISBN 978-0-7352-2511-4
Also available as an ebook.

What follows is a truthful account, as best as I am able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation, codenamed Windfall, that was mounted against the East German Intelligence Service (STASI) in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, and resulted in the death of the best British secret agent I ever worked with, and of the innocent women for whom he gave his life.

The is the opening paragraph, and it draws us—it drew me—into a (fictional) past, but one that has always carried with it the aura of truth.  That past is the story told, in 1963, in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, of Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold.  Leamas, because he was chosen (and accepted) the task of acting as a traitor to England, of gaining the confidence of STASI, of casting guilt on a STASI officer, in pursuit of the goal of maintaining a double agent and the information flow that agent provides.  Gold, because she fell in love with Leamas (and he with her).

Now, decades later, in a very different world, all of that comes back to life, in the form of lawsuits filed by children of some of the people directly involved.  And a British government that would like to make it all go away…or at least not become public.

One of the few survivors who were participants in those events, Peter Guillam, who was in his early thirties then and is much older now (depending on when this book is actually set, somewhere between his late seventies and mid-to-late eighties), is required, under the terms of his retirement, to return to London, to be interrogated about those events.  In the course of his interrogation, he reads (or re-reads) the reports generated during the events of that distant past.  He recalls those events, sometimes in ways that differ from the reports.  And he answers questions. 

In what is, I think, a first for Le Carre, this book is written in the first person—Guillam narrates this part of the story, from his point of view, in the present.  So we are, to the extent he allows us, privy to his thoughts, to his efforts to corroborate or modify (or conceal) the history contained in those ancient reports.  And, of course, one issue is whether his memories of the past, and his understanding of who did what, and why, are shaped by his past and his distance from it now.  And throughout we have to deal with one figure—Control, whose name we never learn—who headed this branch of the British intelligence services (called, informally, the Circus) and another figure—George Smiley, then head of Covert Operations—whose decisions and actions shaped, to some degree, the events in that distant past.

Control is long dead; Smiley is long retired, but still, apparently, alive (making him easily into his nineties).  Of the others, well, at least mostly dead.

Guillam has to navigate his interrogation, which means remembering things he’d rather not, and dealing with loyalties (and betrayals) he’d also rather not.  And he has to remember, and deal with his own part.  And that is neither easy nor without its own evasions.

This is, let me say, a magnificent book.  While it may be useful to have read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, you can get along nicely without.  It raises, and carefully does not resolve, a number of difficult moral issues.  Were the actions taken in the past were, then or now, justifiable?  Well, it depends.  Is the current investigation designed to get at “the truth,” or to make it easier to blame anything that looks difficult on those long dead or long out of power?  I think we’re given a number of hints there.  But remember, our narrator was involved, and his take on the current investigation may well be biased.  Is biased.  How can we be sure of, recall, describe, the motivations that led to people’s decisions and actions 50 years ago? 

How can we be sure, I think Le Carre is asking,of our own motives (or our efforts to deceive ourselves and others), of the morality or necessity or utility of our decisions, decisions that might maintain whatever tenuous peace now exists or might lead to needless deaths, and war—now?

Monday, September 4, 2017

M.J. Lee, Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary

M.J. Lee, Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary
Endeavor Press Ltd. © M.J. Lee 2016
ISBN 978-1-5329-3461-2

Samuel Pepys was of course, a real historical figure and is famous to this day for keeping a diary.  (A good overview of his life, and of his diaries can be found here:  What M.J. Lee has done is to set a story—I wouldn’t exactly say it’s a mystery—that involves both the diaries and Pepys role as a naval administrator during the Restoration period.

Here’s the situation:  A thief (Jack Turner) has been hired to steal the current volume of Pepys’ diary—a diary that Pepys believed no one actually knows about and, as he writes in in a private code, that he also believes that no one could decode in any event.  While he’s in the house, Turner also steals a piece of jewelry that Pepys’ wife Elizabeth prizes.  So Pepys has two things to recover:  His diary, which had to be the primary object of the thief, and which could cause Pepys a good deal of embarrassment (he has written some things in it that, should the King learn of them, will cause no end of trouble), and his wife’s locket.  He enlists the assistance of his friend, also an Admiralty employee, Will Hewer in this quest.

The first step, of course, is to identify and find the thief.  This proves to be a relatively easy task; they trace the locket to the shop of a notorious receiver of stolen property who is perfectly willing to disclose the thief’s name and abode (for a price).  Unfortunately, the thief has been murdered, and, while the locket is recovered (and then lost again), the diary is not.

And Pepys has a task assigned to him as a part of his job—visit the Admiralty works in Chatham, discover how things are going there, and prepare a report for the King, during the next four days.  (And things there are known not to be going well.)

When Pepys and Hewer attend a performance of a new play by John Dryden, the epilogue, recited by Nell Gwynn (one of the King’s mistresses) seems to be aimed at Pepys; she looks directly at him as she says:

For the writer’s pen is his phallus,
The blue ink his seed.
And though he’s impotent,
He’s prolific indeed.
He scribes each night,
A daily nocturnal rite,
His words will be his death,
Strung by the neck till out of breath.

So…Who has the diary?  Who is offering vague threats?  Does someone want to encourage him to report the truth from Chatham, or cover things up?  How can he get his wife’s locket back. Get his diary back, and avoid the Tower?

While the book begins somewhat slowly, the sense we get of late 17th-century London is pretty remarkable (as is the amount people eat and drink).  The history of Restoration-period England is not really something I know much about, Lee seems to know what he’s writing about.  The shadow of Cromwell hangs over things, and the religious divisions (and violence) simmer just below the surface.  I had to look up a number of things, just to make sure I knew what was going on…For one, I’d never heard of the Act of Indulgence (, proclaimed by James II and guaranteeing (within limits, freedom of worship (but not for Catholics).  And then there was the Fifth Monarchy (, an “extreme Puritan sect” which anticipated the imminent second coming of Christ. 

Actual historic personages (Dryden, Nell Gwyn, Aphra Benn (who plays a very prominent role in the second half of the book), Sir William Coventry, Sir Joseph Williamson, the Duke of Buckingham, Charles II, and others).  play significant roles, and I felt it necessary to check up on them as well:
Dryden (Lee does not depict him favorably):
Charles II:

(I should add that it’s perfectly possible to read and enjoy the book without the history lessons.)

The last third of the book, in particular, proceeds at a very brisk pace, and we end with Pepys presenting his report to the King, and its repercussions.  Based on this outing, I hope to be able to read a second adventure of Messers Pepys and Hewer soon.