33 year old Julian Lawndsley (yes, he’s British, why do you ask?) has had enough of life as a hardcore stock broker in the City and decides to start anew in a nameless seaside town, where he opens a book shop. He’s not an avid reader and doesn’t know a lot about books, so when a quaint, older man named Edward starts frequenting his shop, offering him advice, he seizes the opportunity. He finds himself enjoying the older man’s company, so when Edward asks him to ferry mysterious letters to a woman in London, he doesn’t hesitate to oblige.
This book was published in 2021, shortly after Le Carré’s death, and it was hailed (mostly by his publisher) as ‘his last complete masterwork’. Masterwork is, perhaps, a bit strong, but it is a good book.
Le Carré is the master of spy novels, and what he does well above all is apply nuance. There is no ‘the greater good’ or Rule Britannica ideation, just a bunch of old spooks who never really got out of the game and who sometimes do things that aren’t objectively ‘good’; we read the novel both from Julian’s perspective and from that of Proctor, a man who is not called George Smiley but might as well have been, who has been tasked with finding out where a leak has sprung.
It’s the characters that keep things going, from a bored couple of former spies, now confined to an eyesore of a bungalow with a labrador named Chapman, cheerfully squabbling and providing exposition, to Edward’s terribly British wife Deborah, the person Hyacinth Bucket would’ve been if she’d actually been upper class. Julian himself may seem like a stooge at first, but he’s pretty clever and adaptable; Proctor actually thinks to himself several times that he would’ve made (or would be) a natural spy, which makes him going along with Edward’s demands just a tad hard to believe, but that’s a minor quibble.
Ultimately, the book reverts back to Le Carré’s strengths (writing about the Cold War); never change a winning formula, I guess. The book could very well have been of the ‘old man yells at clouds’ variety, but Le Carré almost treats the younger players with more respect than the old ones, who all seem to have realised they’ve lost their grip on the world but at the same time can’t quite let go of their former jobs. Likewise, the plot doesn’t fall into overwrought drama or spectacle.
I’d never read a Le Carré novel before, and I picked up this one – not exactly his most famous book – because it was what my library has on offer (reading mostly in English in a non-English speaking country leaves you at the mercy of librarians a lot). It wasn’t always an easy read, but that’s fine; the author doesn’t underestimate the reader. Considering that Le Carré was close to 90 when he wrote it, it’s all the more impressive. I’ll definitely be picking up more of his work.