John le Carré: Silverview (Hardcover, 2021, Viking) 4 stars

An agent of the British secret service gets jarred loose from his setting, and his …


No rating

A British intelligence agent gets shaken up while on assignment. Soon after the agent retires to a coastal resort town, but it provides no relief, and the agent's restlessness attracts the attention, and later the concern, of former intelligence colleagues.

The story is straightforward spy vs spy, but it has an interesting structure. The two peripheral characters — the daughter and the book-seller — are made central and the two central characters — the rogue-spy mouse and the internal-affairs cat — work in the periphery. It takes about half the book before it dawns (at least it did for me) that the internal-affairs agent is something more than a device for advancing the plot by going around and interviewing people to reveal backstory.

The book reads like a second draft in need of a third, and possibly a fourth. This is not only because the jacket copy says the book’s posthumous, but because of the story. The book-seller is cryptic: a successful financial shark gives it up in the prime of life and takes over a book store in a resort town. A common fantasy, but perhaps not among financial sharks, successful or otherwise. He’s in a resort town and wants to run a high-end bookstore that makes money moving Tom Clancy and Mary Higgins Clark (or whoever the British equivalents are) to the summer crowd. I don’t think you get to be a successful financial shark by misreading the market that badly. Plus, the high-end book-seller has never heard of Chomsky or Sebald or his book The Rings of Saturn. All of this looks like masterful story-telling misdirection, but the more you read into the book the more you realize it’s not: this is the way the book-seller is.

The killer, however, is the ending. Positively, it’s a satisfying ending, depending on your politics; negatively, it relies on a great gaping plot hole. I read the ending three times to make sure I wasn’t missing anything or being excessively obtuse, but no: the ending turns on a ridiculous twist. I worked up a fool-me-once explanation from a prior event in the story, but it requires turning the intelligence service into a Monty Python skit. On the other hand, Le Carré’s son writes in an afterword that he found the manuscript “fearsomely good,” and made only a few minor changes before publication, so maybe there’s something I’m not seeing, or seeing something that isn’t there.