In the intelligence trade there’s always unfinished business, and so too with spy novelists. On his death last December at age 89, after a fall at his home, John le Carré left behind the manuscript he’d begun sometime after 2013’s A Delicate Truth. He’d made a deal with his youngest son, Nick Cornwell—who, like his father, writes fiction under a pen name, Nick Harkaway. “He asked for a commitment,” Harkaway writes, “and I gave it: if he died with a story incomplete on his desk, would I finish it?”
We now have that novel, Silverview, which le Carré wrote from top to bottom and re-drafted several times without signing off on the final manuscript. Harkaway describes an “editorial process that was more a clandestine brush pass” than any new writing on his part. The result passes muster. The stitches don’t show, and the novel possesses several elements of classic le Carré: political and personal loyalties in conflict, ghosts floating up from the geopolitical past, suspicions of a mole within British intelligence.
Silverview dramatizes the shifting loyalties of a man caught between countries, ideologies, and the bloody conflicts of the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st. He is Edward Avon, now in late middle age and living in a seaside village in East Anglia. We first see him through the eyes of Julian Lawndsley, a young man who has fled family disgrace and a stressful career in the City of London to open a bookshop on the coast. Edward knew Julian’s father at their public school, where they both protested the Vietnam War, before Julian’s reverend father rejected God from the pulpit, lost his vicarage, became mired in sex scandals and debts, and met an untimely death.
To Julian, Edward is a charming eccentric who somewhat mysteriously speaks Polish, deals in Chinese antiquities, and offers to assist him in setting up a basement trade in secondhand classics of world literature and philosophy, someone who can help him compensate for “his lack of the basic literary education required of your upmarket bookseller.” (Edward begins by proselytizing for the novels of W. G. Sebald; Julian also notices he’s put in an order for works by Noam Chomsky.) Julian is one of le Carré’s innocent bystanders, like Liz Gold from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and so many others after her, drawn into plots beyond their comprehension.
The task of unwinding that plot is left to Stewart Proctor, head of domestic security for the Secret Intelligence Service. Like Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, Stewart plays the role of detective, unearthing dusty files and interrogating veterans of the service about decades-old cases. Edward turns out to be a longtime agent of British intelligence, married, no less, to a career service analyst, Deborah, his debriefer when he first came in from the cold. Under cover of “putting together sanitized case histories as teaching tools for new entrants,” Stewart interviews two retired service hands—another married couple, Joan and Philip—who handled Edward (code name: Florian) when he was in the field.
The novel possesses several elements of classic le Carré: political and personal loyalties in conflict, ghosts floating up from the geopolitical past, suspicions of a mole within British intelligence.
All the eccentricities he’s shown to Julian turn out to be elements of another elaborate cover story. Edward is the son of a man who died before Edward was born, a Polish Fascist who collaborated with the Nazis. After a Bolshie youth in Britain, he converted to anti-Communism and worked for British intelligence in Warsaw during the waning years of the Cold War. Reactivated during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, he provided intelligence on the Serbs to NATO and objected when it wasn’t quickly shared with his Bosnian friends. In a Serb attack on a small village, a friend of his, a doctor from Jordan who has set up a clinic, is killed, causing another turn in his loyalties.
Bridging the Cold War and the war on terror, Silverview ultimately hinges on a dynamic that has troubled le Carré’s characters since at least Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: British intelligence’s vexed relationship with “our American cousins.” In his afterword, Harkaway writes that his father may have been hesitant about publishing Silverview in his lifetime because the novel “shows a service fragmented: filled with its own political factions: not always kind to those it should cherish, not always very effective or alert, and ultimately not sure, any more, that it can justify itself.”
That may be true (though it could be said, more or less, of many le Carré novels), but another picture emerges in Silverview: that of a lifelong idealist whose commitments (said to be a liability in intelligence work) transcend institutions, nations, and ideologies. Edward is, in the end, a man whose conscience won’t be outwitted by history, and unlike le Carré’s other stories of traitors and double agents who meet grim fates, Silverview is no tragedy.
Christian Lorentzen is a Brooklyn-based writer