Silverview, by John le Carré
This is the “last complete masterwork from the greatest chronicler of our age”, according to the reliably hyperbolic blurb on the inside front cover, and it was published posthumously; this also implies that there was, or were, other works of greater or lesser merit in preparation at the time of his death on 12 December 2020. This is a relatively slight volume of 208 pages, and the eponymous Silverview is a “big house on the edge of town”; the town being an anonymous “small English [east Anglian] seaside town.” The protagonist is the thirty-something Julian Lawndsley, who has relinquished his former life as a “high-flying” City financier for the more cerebral vocation of owing a bookshop. At the beginning of the story, we encounter Lily, who has an infant son in a pushchair, delivering a secret written message to a house in South Audley Street, London, on behalf of her dying mother; the recipient of the message, Proctor, is presumably a member of the British security service. There is some doubt as to Lily’s relationship with her father, and it is not until some time after Julian has encountered the enigmatic Edward Avon in his bookshop that we are able to make the connection with Lily & her mother, Deborah: she & Edward reside at Silverview.
Avon affects English mannerisms, but Julian is immediately aware that this could be a cover for a foreign origin—and, indeed, he is revealed to be of Polish extraction, despite referring to himself as “a British mongrel, retired, a former academic of no merit and one of life’s odd-job men.” Avon persuades Julian to turn his shop’s basement into a reading room, to be called The Republic of Literature, and Avon volunteers his services to trawl the internet for rare, valuable, and possibly even abstruse volumes, for which a computer will be required: Julian is more than happy to oblige. After making the acquaintance of one of his fellow shop-keepers, Celia, he learns that Avon might possibly also have acted as a handler for some, or all, of his wife’s valuable china collection. We also learn more about Stewart Proctor, who is, indeed, in the security service, MI6 to be specific, and he has served in several locations abroad with his wife, also an operative, but who is now actively studying archaeology.
It becomes apparent that Edward Avon is under investigation, but understandably this is kept very low-key, and Proctor only introduces himself to Julian after some protracted internal debate. The element of complication in the situation is that Avon’s wife Deborah was also the Service’s star Middle East analyst until debilitated by her illness; the house belonged to her father, who was active in the Service in the second world war, and it had communications connections with the local Air Force base: these connections are still active with a more recent strategic base, although Deborah has requested that these be severed because her condition is terminal. This is about as much as can be revealed here, but it is worth noting that le Carré focuses on older operatives in this story; also, to some extent, whether Proctor considers Avon, despite his possible unreliability, or even explicit treachery, to be a better man than he, as a result of all the troubles he has survived, which Proctor has managed to avoid? Proctor’s reservations about the Service also very possibly manifest David Cornwell’s own views: I am fairly certain that he has expressed his ambivalence in interviews over the years. This is possibly a somewhat low-key swan-song; although le Carré very possibly hoped to be able to continue working for some more years, not anticipating his demise; but it is nevertheless a competent and, consequently, enjoyable completion of his canon, so I have no reservations in recommending it. The hardback I read was published in 2021 by Penguin Viking, ISBN 978-0-241-55006-9.