John LeCarre’s ‘A Legacy of Spies’: dirty details

LeCarre is always an entertaining and interesting read and A Legacy of Spies is no exception. It focuses on on the present day fallout of an MI6 operation against the Stasi in the early 1960s.

In doing so, two things stand out that as being a little odd (neither of which are particularly important to the story but interesting nonetheless).

The first is the cameo role played by Jim Prideaux one of the Circus (MI6) ‘Scalphunters’. The main character in Legacy, Peter Guilliame tracks Prideaux down to a struggling private school in Somerset where he teaches French and lives in a caravan in the school grounds. This scene in the book is remarkably similar to the scene in the film Tinker, Taylor , Soldier, Spy in which Smiley finds Prideaux in order to interview him about another MI6 operation that went bad – this time in Czechoslovakia.

The second is within the least convincing part of the story which involves an MI6 agent developing a relationship with a young Communist woman who takes him along to political meetings. One such is described as a local Communist Party sponsored ‘Open Day to all shades of left-wing opinion’ at which ‘regular attendees include members of the Socialist Workers’ Party, ‘Militant’, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament…’ The main speaker at one particular meeting is R. Palme Dutt (a real life Stalinist leader), while one of the others is the (presumably fictional) local Trotskyist Bert Arthur Lownes.

This short scene packs in a number of implausible and impossible features. The period is meant to be the early 1960s (one document referred to is dated 1962) and certainly R. Palme Dutt was around then, but the Socialist Workers’ Party was not formed until 1977 and ‘Militant’ didn’t exist in that form or under that name until 1964. Worse than that though, is the idea that the Communist Party would provide any sort of platform for its hated ‘Trot’ enemies like the SWP or Militant. Vicars and Labour MPs were usually welcomed at CP events but not Trotskyists.

How important are these details? Conan Doyle argued: ‘It has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little.’ On the other hand, Wilkie Collins, considered to be the author of the first modern detective novel, has his lead character say: ‘In all my experience along the dirtiest ways of this dirty little world, I have never met with such a thing as a trifle yet.’ And there never was a dirtier world than the dirty world of Cold War espionage.

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