John le Carre
Richard Hopton, Sherborne Literary Society
Silverview by John Le Carré (Viking)
John le Carré was one of the most important English novelists of the last sixty years, responsible, single-handedly, for the invention of the literary spy thriller. Since 'The Spy Who Came In From The Cold', published in 1963, rocketed him to international attention, le Carré’s 25 novels have gripped the
reading public with their multi-layered tales of the idealism and cynicism, loyalty and treachery of our secret security services and the human fallibility, the sheer ordinariness of its operatives. None of le Carré’s heroes are suave hitmen like Fleming’s Bond. It is no accident that le Carré’s hero should be played by Alec Guinness, Fleming’s by Sean Connery.
Le Carré died in December 2020 leaving ‘Silverview' as his last complete, full length novel, his 26th. As in so many of le Carré’s novels, it glides from an apparently mundane opening - in this case a young woman in an anorak walking down South Audley Street with a pushchair in the rain - into an intricate web of intrigue, where the past is never far below the surface and the explanation never straightforward. Turning the pages, the reader can see a nimbus of complexity on the horizon and thinks, ’I’d better keep my wits about me, this is le Carré’.
Most of the novel’s protagonists are present and former members of the British security service. Stewart Proctor is the service’s mole-catcher-in-chief, charged with investigating a breach in security; Deborah Avon is the service’s former Middle East expert, married to Edward, who is hard to place and harder to fathom. Julian Lawndsley, the principal civilian, is a City spiv who made a rapid fortune and retired in his early thirties to run a provincial bookshop. There is a supporting part for another favourite le Carré character, the retired spook, in this case a couple, Philip and Joan, living in genteel poverty in Somerset.
The background to the story lies in the sectarian horrors of the conflict in Bosnia in the early ‘90s but the novel itself is centred on an unremarkable East Anglian seaside town. It is here that Lawndsley opens his bookshop, here that the Avons live in retirement and here that Edward Avon befriends Lawndsley. The novel has an air of decline and mild disappointment; for most of its protagonists, life hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations of earlier years. Even the top-secret conference room at a formerly vital airforce base is not immune; it is, Procter decides, like ‘a ship abandoned, slowly sinking. A stench of decay, age and oil.’ It is wholly appropriate that one of the climatic scenes of the novel should be a funeral.
‘Silverview' is a story about loyalty. How do we decide to whom we owe loyalty, and why? Can loyalties change or are they, once formed, eternal? It’s an enjoyable novel, a worthy coda, albeit in a minor key, to le Carré’s life’s work. The master is dead, but his books will live on.