Silverview by John le Carré
There can be little doubt that John le Carré was a master story teller. This posthumous offering only reinforces that opinion. Many feared that the end of the Cold War would see the end of his writing career, but spying is still big business, the only difference being that the Russians are no longer always the bad guys.
This last novel feels like a genteel tale. We are in a small town on the East coast of England, where Julian Lawndsley has escaped his high-flying finance career to open a bookshop. He knows very little about books, but at least part of his shop serves good coffee. He has not heard of W G Sebald and ‘The Rings of Saturn’, which is not a good start for a bookseller setting up in exactly the same part of the country that Sebald describes in his walking tour book. Other than that, Julian seems both likable and believable.
You may know Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel ‘The Bookshop’, which became a great film in 2017. Although neither book names the location of the small town in which the action takes place, Silverview also feels like it was set in the same Suffolk town of Southwold.
The pace is leisurely, with the gradual introduction of the main protagonists. We follow Julian’s bookshop and one of his eccentric customers called Edward, or Edvard, Avon. At the same time we are introduced to Stewart Proctor who is preparing to celebrate the 21st birthday of his twin children. Proctor obviously still works for the secret service, regularly entering the old scullery where they keep the ‘green phone’, a hotline into Whitehall. For five years since it was installed at home, the phone has been hidden under a tea cosy. Edward is more mysterious and emerges only slowly from the shadows, first as a schoolfriend of Julian’s father, later as a potential agent. But we have read le Carré before, we know he is going to be a spy right from the moment he first enters the bookshop. He has all the traits; education, eccentricity and a slight foreign accent. You have to wait 90 pages into a 200-page book before we have the first real confirmation that the two parts of the story threads, of Julian and Proctor, are closely intertwined. From then on we learn about the history of Edward and his spying for England during the Balkan conflict. We build sympathy for his plight and what he has faced. Gradually doubts are dripped into the plot, revealing worrying events.
The genteel pace allows plenty of room for snippets of old spy humour, such as this description of Proctor’s visit to interview old colleagues:
“It was not until they had settled over coffee and brandies in the tiny conservatory that, by unspoken consent, they felt free to talk about whatever it was that had brought Stewart to their door. For it was a general truth of Intelligence professionals of a certain age that if sensitive matters are to be discussed at all, then best in a bare room with no party walls and no chandelier.”
The author cannot resist the odd dig at the English establishment and politicians, with whom he had become increasingly exasperated in his last years. We gradually wind up the pace to a very pleasing conclusion, in which all the surveillance techniques are employed and the old wisdom proved, that it takes a good spy to outwit a spy network.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Published by Penguin RRP $37