Legendary novelist John Le Carré died in 2020 leaving behind a legacy of twenty-seven novels that both set the template and often redefined the spy novel. Silverview, his final book, unpublished at the time of his death, has now been released and shows his ability and skills undiminished. Silverview is a small gem of a book, replete with spycraft, peopled by the recognisably British characters and delving into themes that Le Carré has been exploring for a while now.
It takes a while for the plot of Silverview to come into focus. The opening is of a young woman delivering a letter to a man called Proctor. Already there is a feel of subterfuge and underhandedness. The contents of the letter prompt Proctor to go searching for a someone who is leaking information. The other thread of the plot revolves around Julian Lawndsley who has fled from London and a money-making career to set up a small bookshop in a coastal town. Julian befriends local man Edward Avon who knew Julian’s wayward father when they were schoolboys and together the two hit upon a plan for the bookshop. But Avon may have other things afoot and Julian turns a blind eye to what could be happening as he is pulled into Avon’s plans.
It does not take much imagination to think of Ian Fleming’s house Goldeneye when considering the title (and titular mansion) of this novel. But while Fleming was all daring do and action, Le Carré has always taken a much more cerebral, considered path. Silverview documents a careful investigation by a consummate professional. And while it also harks back to more action filled days of the conflict in the Balkans, even that tale is one of the management of agents and the emotional pressures that both drove them and broke them.
In common with the last two Le Carré novels (A Legacy of Spies and Agent Running in the Field), the book focusses on the sins of the past. Proctor is an ageing spymaster now investigator and the people he interviews are mostly former agents (although even they are not told the true reasons for his questioning). Also in common with the latter novel is the concept of the jaded ex-agent who feels there are better ways of addressing the world’s problems as they see them. This once again allows Le Carré to consider the legacy of the British secret services, purportedly through the eyes of those who served such as this observation made to Proctor by another former spy runner:
‘The thing is old boy – between ourselves, don’t tell the trainees or you’ll lose your pension – we didn’t do much to alter the course of human history, did we?’ Said Philip. ‘As one old spy to another, I reckon I’d have been more use running a boys’ club.’
But the point of the novel is that people are still trying to do just that. Using espionage to “alter the course of human history” or at least tip the balance in one direction or another. And as always, innocents get caught in the middle.
Eventually the two plot threads come very firmly together. Le Carré is in complete control of his plot and characters as they come into each other’s orbits and plans start to come to fruition. So that while there are no car chases, heroic leaps or explosions, he generates plenty of tension. While no one wanted it to be, Silverview is a perfect final novel, distilling the themes that Le Carré had been exploring in his more recent outings and showing once again why he is the master of the espionage novel.