A posthumous novel by John le Carré
Silverview. By Jean le Carré. Viking; 224 pages; $ 28 and £ 20
WHEN JEAN LE CARRé Passing away last December, he left behind a prodigious body of work that spanned six decades and chronicled human betrayal and geopolitical turmoil with a winning mix of intrigue, insight and moral complexity. He also bequeathed an archive of unpublished documents. It contained a complete novel titled “Silverview”, which he had worked on in tandem with the last two books he had published during his lifetime, “A Legacy of Spies” and “Agent Running in the Field”. Today, almost a year after his death, the novel, the 26th by the British author, makes its appearance.
As with these two other end-of-career works, most of the book takes place in Le Carré’s native land. It features Julian Lawndsley, who recently escaped the City’s rat race (“I came, I stole, I conquered”) to run a bookstore in a small seaside town. One evening, just before closing, he receives an end customer who shows a curious interest in the basement of the store. Edward Avon claims to be an old school friend of Julian’s late father, describing himself as “one of life’s odd jobs”. A connection is formed, after which Julian is invited to the Avon family home, Silverview, where he meets Edward’s wife Deborah and their daughter Lily.
Le Carré opens a separate narrative thread. When a small technical incident turns into a full-scale security breach, spy boss and “chief sniffer dog” Stewart Proctor is asked to track down the source of the leak. Its investigations involve unearthing retired spies and browsing old case histories, including a botched operation in communist Poland and a tragedy in war-torn Bosnia. Proctor dwells on his career in a certain seaside town, eager to learn more about the defector and the reasons for his betrayal: “Who do we find when we removed the layers of disguise? Or have you never been more than the sum of your disguises?
“Silverview” takes at least 50 pages to gain momentum. “But what was the end of the game?” Julian wonders of Edward’s intentions – a question some readers may ask about the novel as a whole in its early days. However, when the plot takes shape and the motives become clearer, the story comes to life and acquires depth, rhythm and tension. There is a retro charm to the proceedings – people keep journals, write letters, send faxes and wear Homburgs – as well as a welcome array of familiar Square tropes, from well-drawn characters to stimulating interviews and debriefings, in addition to a convincing outcome involving research. man on the run.
This book is by no means vintage le Carré. But it’s also not the posthumous half-baked cash-in that it could have been. Rather, it is a worthy coda, a compelling farewell from a master who has been sorely missed.
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the Print Edition under the title “Against the Current”