• By John le Carré
  • Viking
  • 224 pp.

The late spymaster’s world is still cold.


Now that John le Carré has passed on, some may have thought that we would not again face his despair over our wicked ways. Sure, he was a literary giant who remade spy fiction, incinerating James Bond fantasies to reveal the squirrelly misfits who choose to live secretly and lie for a living. But then he became a bit of a scold. With Silverview, a manuscript he left behind after shuffling off this mortal coil, he’s still scolding.

In his Cold War novels, le Carré portrayed a struggle between the pretty bad (that’s us) and the truly awful (that’s the Communists). When the truly awful vaporized in 1989 (though since reconstituting itself as pretty awful), the novelist elected to wrestle with the pretty bad (still us). The more he looked, the less he liked. Hence, the scolding.

His later novels were trapped by an asymmetry. Instead of a Cold War clash of cultures backed by huge military machines — the sort of thing readers can root for and against — his heroes were the ones who wouldn’t play. This wasn’t entirely new ground for le Carré. In his breakout early novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, spy Alec Leamas walks away from a grudge match that was being fought with diabolical cunning by both sides. But in Silverview, everyone’s tired of the whole thing. Their largest challenge is to contrive a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Right, I should describe the story. Julian, a thirtysomething awash with money amassed in London’s financial district, buys a quaint bookstore in a seaside town. He swiftly falls under the spell of a charismatic old gent, Edward, who turns out to be an espionage Svengali who has scar tissue on top of scar tissue from duty behind the Iron Curtain, then in the Balkans and the Middle East. Edward’s loyal service largely failed due to betrayals and the rank careerism around him. Has disillusionment made him disloyal? The bureaucracy tries to rouse itself to find out.

The ending is unsatisfying, which le Carré certainly intended. His message: Stop looking for happy endings.

In an insightful afterword, the novelist’s son Nick Cornwell (a writer himself) discloses that the family found the Silverview manuscript in close-to-final form after le Carré died. But Cornwell found no evidence that it was produced shortly before his father’s death. Rather, the novelist seemed to have written it earlier and put it aside. Cornwell offers a theory for why le Carré didn’t push the book into the marketplace:

“[Silverview] shows a [secret] service fragmented: filled with its own political factions, not always kind to those it should cherish, not always very alert, and ultimately not sure, any more, that it can justify itself.”

Cornwell concludes that his father did not want to face his former colleagues after rendering that merciless judgment. The theory rings true.

But, the impatient reader demands, is the book any good? It’s okay. And okay le Carré is better than a whole lot of other books. He tells too much of the story in retrospective narrative rather than letting us live through exciting moments. The Svengali’s final scene, which could have involved some wickedly inventive tradecraft, happens offstage. The publisher pumps in a lot of white space to get the page count to 200.

Still, even in a sour frame of mind, le Carré the stylist is a wonder. At the close of a funeral, with the mourners filing out to enjoy the customary free feed, “the organ enters a mood of languorous despair.”

And an upper-class thug with the service invites Julian to an interview with a fine mix of courtesy and compulsion: “‘A senior colleague of mine needs very much to talk to you,’ Reggie said. ‘It’s got to be now-ish, I’m afraid.’”

If you’re a le Carré enthusiast, you should read this book with modest expectations. If you’re not a le Carré enthusiast, I don’t really want to know you. But start with The Pigeon Tunnel, his brilliant memoir. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, fascinating, and scolding-free.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2021.]

David O. Stewart is the author of The New Land, the first book of the Overstreet Saga, which will release on November 16th. His George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father was published in February 2021.

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