Le Carré’s swansong may be one of his best


Review: Archie Henderson

Silverview, by John le Carré (Penguin Random House)

When the Cold War ended, some of his readers wondered if John le Carré would become redundant. But one of the world’s best spy novelists reinvented himself quickly, taking on a variety of villains – from arms dealers to shameless earth polluters.

The conflict between the West and the Muslim world and the disintegration of the Soviet empire became convenient backdrops for books far removed from his masterpieces like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the Karla trilogy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

With Silverview, Le Carré is back in the great game. One of the characters is almost a re-creation of his finest character, George Smiley. Stewart Proctor, a renowned spy hunter in Britain’s Secret Service, even believes he is being cuckolded, just like dear old George. Like many of Le Carré’s themes, this novel is also one of betrayal.

The novel was published almost a year after Le Carré’s death at the age of 89 in December. He had started it years ago, then put it aside to develop other books and stories. It’s possible that his widow, Jane, was able to edit it before she died soon after her husband. The couple worked as a team, Jane having been an editor for Hodder & Stoughton, and we should be grateful to her for saving a book that is one of Le Carré’s best.

Le Carré is in his element in the shadowy world of spies and uses his characters brilliantly to fill in the backgrounds and keep the plot moving. The setting is a seaside village in East Anglia – near where England’s Norfolk and Suffolk come together on the North Sea coast – and the title is from a house inhabited by a mysterious woman who is a grander version of Connie Sachs, Le Carré’s marvellous Russia expert from those Karla books. Only Deborah Avon’s forte is the Middle East, so you know in which direction the story is going.

Deborah is dying and her husband, whom she lured into marriage, was one of those typical Le Carré recruits, a man of many nationalities who once was an ideal agent for Britain – much like Toby Esterhase from the Karla saga.

The story is brought together by an innocent bystander in Julian Lawndsley, who had made a mint in the City then decided to give up his Porsche for a Land Cruiser and his flat in London for a bookshop on the coast.

Lawndsley is unsuspectingly drawn into the spy saga, but even that might be giving away too much. The book is just 208 pages so it can be read in just a few days, which is good because it is hard to put down.


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