John le Carré’s final published novel, Silverview (2021), does not disappoint, a superb capstone to an illustrious career. It’s a subtle, quiet story set in a small town in the south of England, where a bachelor by the name of Julian Lawndsley flees the lucrative rat race of London to open a modest bookshop. Julian isn’t exactly a natural bookseller, but he does his best to integrate with the quirky little community — which includes befriending a peculiar gentleman named Edward, an English citizen of Polish descent who gradually attaches himself barnacle-like to Julian and his shop. Julian, who comes to understand that Edward’s wife is gravely ill, takes an unlikely shine to the elderly gentleman, even agreeing to help him out with numerous small favors. As it turns out, though, Edward’s past is a storied one filled with intrigue, deception, and danger, and by allowing himself to be drawn into Edward’s orbit, Julian may have let himself in for more than he bargained for.
Well versed spy fiction readers will deduce what’s happening right away: that Edward is a spy, leveraging Julian’s bookshop as a convenient front for his clandestine activities. Even Julian senses it, even if he’s too casual and trusting to worry about it too much. But what exactly is Edward up to? Therein lies the mystery, which unfolds in a dual-tracked story that also involves a jaded intelligence officer named Proctor, who gradually gets wind of Edward’s risky activities and methodically sets about solving the problem. As the mystery unfolds, le Carré uses Edward’s backstory to reflect on one man’s journey through an intelligence career, from the wide-eyed idealism of recruitment to the stunned disillusionment of the realities of fieldwork. One can imagine le Carré, in his later days, knowing instinctively that Silverview might be a perfect way to say goodbye, with Edward standing in for the author. After all, Edward too is a man at the end of his career, conducting a final operation in remote seclusion, using books as cover – just like le Carre’, whose thoughtful life may have travelled a similar trajectory. The result is a slim, smart little book that muses quietly on the tragic futility underlying the grandiose intentions of the intelligence world, a message that serves nicely as a lingering, haunting commentary on the life the author lived and the world he left behind.