Book Review

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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.

Book Review

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The War in the Dark, by Nick Setchfield

This is the author’s first novel, but it is a very accomplished introduction; he is no stranger to writing, as he is a writer & features editor for a “best-selling magazine of genre entertainment in film, TV and books [SFX].” This background shouldn’t automatically suggest an inspiration for the subject matter of this story, but he has evidently embraced it enthusiastically. Christopher Winter thinks he knows how the world works, at the beginning of the narrative, but he is very quickly disabused of that notion. It is October 1963, and he is an MI6 assassin, who can kill spies & traitors, seemingly without compunction, at the behest of his masters. His latest contract, a priest who is suspected of selling state secrets to the Russians, presents him with a worrying development; for a start, he doesn’t just accept his fate, like the majority of Winters’s victims, but when Winters does kill the man, after a fight in which Winters is knifed in the arm, the priest dissolves into something altogether unholy as he dies.

Thereafter, the plot becomes increasingly gothic. According to Christopher’s erstwhile mentor, and now MI6 colleague, Malcolm Hands, the priest was trading not state secrets to the Russians, but esoteric runes: apparently, secrets more powerful than the atomic bomb, and his cutout is a third man in Vienna. Sound familiar? I prefer to interpret this as a reverential ‘borrow’, rather than a lazy ‘steal’: it is a fact that Vienna was a seething hub of espionage in the cold war years, so this is not an implausible plot device. Things take a distinct turn for the weird when Winters’s ‘echo man’ [field backup] is murdered, but then his corpse appears to be still alive, and intent on killing his colleague! To add to this catalogue of calamity, Hands is ritualistically murdered, but as Christopher hopes, he must have anticipated this turn of events, and has left a clue to a dead letter drop for Winters to collect. While he is doing this, he thinks he spots his wife, Joyce, observing him, but there is something about her that also seems wrong; this disquiet is amplified exponentially when Joyce subsequently tries to kill him!

This isn’t a ‘Steampunk’ world per se, but the gothic aspects of the story do suggest some sort of overlap; as mentioned, this is effectively the real world, but the story asks the question: do we really know the world, or is there much that remains just out of sight, but lurking in wait for the unsuspecting? Chris’s world is undoubtedly falling apart, and it is morphing into something demonic. Into this mix is thrown a character known only as Hart, but in a slightly earlier time period: he is a warlock, who seems to be obsessively searching for something, and he is also disturbingly capable of killing to facilitate his quest, using bone and blood magic. There are also, probably unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, references to Elizabeth the first’s spymaster, Walsingham, his alchemist associate Dr John Dee, and Sir Edward Kelly, who was employed for the ability to scry beyond the material curtain, a facility which was, frustratingly, unavailable to Dee. A supernatural being known as the Widow of Kursk is introduced, and she seems to know Christopher, calling him Tobias: how can this be? Winter also encounters an exotic [of course!] female spy by the name of Karina, and this proves to be a fateful connection for him.

Revealing any more would undoubtedly spoil a somewhat convoluted, but nevertheless enjoyable plot, which can be a refreshing alternative to perhaps more mundane spy thrillers & police procedurals; there is also the distinct possibility that this narrative could be continued in a further story, although that is not explicitly stated. If you enjoy a dark read, which might even be ever so slightly frightening, I can recommend this book: with the special effects available to the film industry today, I think it could also make a decent film, given all the appropriate prerequisites: good casting, production, and direction. The paperback I read was published in 2018 by Titan Books, London, ISBN 978-1-785-65709-2.

Book Review

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Double Agent, by Tom Bradby

This author’s name might already be familiar to some of my British readers, given that he has worked extensively as a journalist & correspondent for the Independent Television Network, and that work has encompassed political affairs, so at the very least, it can be said that he knows of what he writes: much more than your present humble blogger, anyway. In addition to the Kate Henderson series, of which this is the second member, he has also written six other novels which, notwithstanding that he had, to 2020, been with ITN for thirty years [which is slightly belied by his annoyingly youthful-looking photograph accompanying the bio on the inside back cover], does beg the question of how demanding his ‘day job’ must be, but to be fair, and with no disrespect intended, authors who churn out piles of books, seemingly on a conveyor belt, tend to be part of a committee, rather than independent scribblers, slaving away in a garret, so it’s probably not too difficult to find a spare hour or so to commit some thoughts to an electronic record, which can then be scrutinised & knocked into shape by editors & proofreaders.

As stated, this book is the sequel to the story which introduced the character, Secret Service [possibly rather too generic a title, but no matter], but that is no impediment to an enjoyment of this story because the backstory is either detailed right at the beginning, or nuggets are drip-fed into the narrative as it progresses; this is a very common device, and perfectly acceptable, and has been adopted by television drama for story arcs [although the somewhat irritating practice of previewing the next episode at the end of the current one, “Next time!”, is now very common, and it is even more irritating in ‘real-life’ documentaries & travelogues, where it is used at the end of each segment, “Coming up!”, before the commercial break!]. That said, I would be happy to read the previous story, even though I now know the ending: there is a school of thought that we enjoy a story more when we already know the ending, so perhaps this proves it.

Kate Henderson is a senior Secret Intelligence Service, aka MI6, officer; head of the Russia Desk; and, although it is presumably more common now for women to hold senior positions in the security services, she is perhaps unusual in that her husband was also an MI6 operative, but defected to Russia because he was unmasked as a mole, codenamed Viper. This was understandably traumatic for her, so at the beginning of this story, she is still suffering the effects of the fallout from this bombshell, and only just managing to hold her work together. She is, however, lucky [possibly implausibly so?] that her aunt is the head of the Personnel Department, and spends a lot of time at her home, to help look after Kate’s two children; also an old and close friend works with her in the same department. One major fly in the ointment is that Kate has been assigned a deputy, Suzy Spencer; “slim, pretty, northern, state-educated and half Vietnamese”, who has been seconded from 5 to replace her former deputy & friend, Rav, who was killed at the unsuccessful end of the previous mission, “Operation Sigma”. This is quite clearly the result of her husband’s treachery, so it is just one more thing for Kate to be concerned about.

The ‘meat’ of the story concerns the potential defection of a senior Russian Intelligence officer, Mikhail Borodin, as well as his father, Igor, the former head of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, and his wife. This has come about by having fallen out of favour somewhat, as a result of tensions between the SVR [the successor to the KGB] & the GRU, Russia’s military espionage agency: apparently, Igor has been ousted in a coup, orchestrated by the GRU, and his colleague, Vasily Durov, is already under arrest. What would sweeten the deal is that they would supply allegedly categorical evidence that the current British Prime Minister is an agent for Russia, and has been for many years; this evidence would include financial payments, and video footage showing the man engaging in sex with underage girls, when he was a soldier in Kosovo. Naturally, there is always the chance that this evidence could be faked, so Kate knows she has to proceed very carefully, but this awareness is complicated by her suspicion that at least one of her current colleagues could also be a mole. During the action, Kate meets up with an erstwhile colleague [and old flame, natch] from her time at University in Russia, and even endures a somewhat awkward overnight stay with her estranged husband in Moscow. It’s not a bad yarn, as spy stories go, so I will keep my eyes open for other publications by Bradby. The Penguin paperback I read was published in 2020 by Bantam Press, ISBN 978-0-5521-7553-1.