I got hooked on John le Carré sometime after I finished undergrad. I’m not quite sure what started it (I think watching the Alec Guinness miniseries adaptation of Tinker Tailor with my parents, or maybe it was watching and then reading The Constant Gardener after its award season run), but I got deeply into classic spy fiction for a hot minute (and have stayed kind of into it): I started with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, moved on to classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and also went even further back, to Eric Ambler’s Judgment on Deltchev and A Mask for Demetrios before sampling some Grahame Greene classics like The Comedians. (No Ian Fleming, though. I liked the grounded stuff.) It was just somehow fascinating to me, and I was particularly fascinated with le Carré, who was 1) still alive, and 2) had adapted to the post-Cold War landscape with an aplomb that some other spy writers lacked.
Anyway, while I haven’t read all of le Carré’s output, I’ve read a lot, and I’d kept up with him, too, hitting most of the recent works (and watching the mostly middling adaptations). I was thrilled, in my postdoc, to give a lecture on his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel to a town-and-gown group. And I was sad to hear of his passing, though to go out at 83 rich, successful, and still writing seems like the way to go. Good job, David Cornwell. So of course I wanted to read (or listen to) his posthumous book, Silverview, when it came out.
I am going to admit first off that my expectations were modest, and I think that was good. A Delicate Truth and Agent Running in the Field had been fine, but not first-rate. Silverview is similar: it’s good, and le Carré does certain things beautifully, but the plot is ultimately a bit slight, the characters a touch underbaked, the central mystery a bit obvious.
The plot is thus: burned-out former City trader Julian Lawndsley chucks in his very profitable career for a new life running a bookshop in a seaside tourist village in East Anglia. There, he meets the peculiar Edward Avon, whose dying wife owns the manor house, Silverview, that looms over the town. Edward is an odd duck, and he encourages Julian to use the basement of the bookshop to start a “Republic of Literature,” a section for classic and rare books that Edward will oversee. Edward, it turns out, was an old friend of Julian’s philandering, indebted father. And so Julian invites this stranger into his life and onto his computers, while at the same time, Stewart Proctor, instigated by a letter from Edward’s dying wife, who–a brilliant intelligence mastermind in her own right, working in the Arab sphere–suspects her husband of some kind of espionage. And rightly so, for Edward (aka Florian) was, in his past life, an agent frequently used by the secret services, right up to the point where he crashed and burned after a horrifying incident in Bosnia in the 1990s.
These are the two strands: Julian, trying to get a handle on his elusive new friend/acquaintance (and developing a bit of a crush on Edward’s no-nonsense daughter, Lily), and Proctor, digging through Edward’s past will ignoring the turbulence in his own life. It’s just a bit too neat, ultimately, with 85% of the action really happening in retrospect, and very little really going on in the present: this is the one real problem of the book, and it strips it of a good bit of urgency. It’s true that le Carré can do this brilliantly, as in Tinker Tailor, but that book also had a desperate sense of racing against the clock in Smiley’s present, whereas this one feels awfully leisurely and unhurried. But le Carré does narrate these past episodes with verve, and a real sense of who the various operatives and villagers really are as people leaks into the stories they tell; he’s always had a knack for character, and that, rather than the thriller, is the reason to spend time here.
I might’ve hoped for more, but this was a nostalgic and pleasant way to bid farewell to an author who has been a companion for a decade and a half. Thanks for all the stories, sir.
(This was also very pleasingly narrated by Toby Jones, an absolute treasure of British cinema, so I’m bumping it from 3.5 to 4 for his excellent work here.)