In the classic espionage novel, there are certain day jobs that make an ideal cover for spies: foreign correspondent, trade delegate, cultural attaché. But the star intelligence officer in John le Carré’s recent, posthumous novel, Silverview, has a more fitting job for her times. At the height of the “war on terror,” Deborah Avon is the jingoistic head of a foreign-policy think tank—a quango, in British technocrat parlance—whose sole aim seems to be outdoing its more influential American counterparts in sheer bloodlust. Her neighbor, Julian, buys her story. So he’s surprised, when she dies, to see shadowy men removing computers and a safe from her house. These are “the people she worked for,” Deborah’s daughter explains.
“In her quango?”
“Yeah, right, got it. Her quango. The Men from the Quango. Title of my next book.”
The joke captures a fact that must have troubled le Carré in his later years: British government intrigue by the 2010s was no longer particularly subtle. Britain since Blairism has abounded with public-private partnerships and awkward acronyms (“quango” is an acronym built on an acronym, short for “quasi-autonomous-NGO”); it has not exactly lent itself to the kind of closely observed, atmospheric spy novel for which le Carré was so beloved. Just imagine: The Spy Who Came In from the Quango; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Technocrat.
Starting with Call for the Dead in 1961, le Carré built his reputation on an intellectually enticing vision of the cold war, in works that presented the conflict as a chess-like game played as if in the realm of abstraction by dour gentlemen. Perhaps no other writer enriched the popular imagination of intelligence work as much as le Carré, who gave the public a colorful vocabulary with which to talk about it. His novels contain the first recorded uses of the terms “honey trap,” “lamplighters,” and “scalphunters”—coinages so apt that real spies began to use them to describe their work. He popularized the terms “tradecraft” (specialized spy techniques) and “mole,” meaning—as the soulful informant Irina puts it in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)—“a deep-penetration agent so called because he burrows deep into the fabric of Western imperialism.”
With a flair for slowly revealing the workings of a detailed conspiracy, le Carré brought his genre to a cerebral new level; the elegance of his plots may even have suggested that spying required more sophistication than it did. The double agent Kim Philby reported, in a letter to Graham Greene in 1982, that he found Le Carré’s plots “more complicated than anything within my own experience,” though “they were good reading after all that James Bond nonsense.” The books draw their imaginative power from the nondescript, exhausted ambience of cold war secrecy, personified by characters with deceptively complacent names: Roy Bland, George Smiley. The grayness on the surface invites the notion of intricate goings-on just beneath.
The end of the cold war did not leave le Carré without a subject, as critics so often worried. His novels of the 1990s and 2000s survey a world run at the behest of arms dealers (The Night Manager), murderous pharmaceutical companies (The Constant Gardener), and money launderers (Single and Single, Our Kind of Traitor) as it slid into endless war (Silverview). The crisis le Carré had to confront was the altered mood of the times. Gone was the softly fading, somberly governed Britain of his novels and in its place was a slick, alienating new order—a shift that le Carré had long seen coming, and fervently disliked. Because more than spying, more than secret life itself, in le Carré’s most enduring novels—especially Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—the dreaded prospect of change is the central tension.
Le Carré learned early not to take stability for granted. Born in Dorset in 1931, the young David Cornwell (John le Carré was a pen name) appeared to enjoy a typical British upper-class upbringing, passing from prep school to boarding school to Oxford, with skiing holidays in St. Moritz along the way. His father, Ronnie, owned racehorses and threw lavish parties at the family home, a mansion named “Tunmers” in Buckinghamshire. In fact, Ronnie was not a hedonistic aristocrat but a prolific con artist, who never lost traces of his West Country accent despite his attempts to mimic the clipped tones of the ruling class. He went to jail for fraud in the 1930s. Soon after Ronnie’s release le Carré’s mother left. He was five; he didn’t see her again for sixteen years. Meanwhile, he and his brother were raised by a succession of “lovelies,” the women Ronnie serially romanced and swindled.
It’s little surprise that le Carré never developed a taste for the kind of spy novel that came dressed in evening wear and brandishing a cocktail; he had lived the world of Casino Royale as a child, traipsing through Europe after a father who risked perilous sums on the roulette boards of Monte Carlo and being enjoined to lie for him when creditors came knocking. Instead, he made virtues of restraint and even dreariness. The two institutions that seem to have had the greatest influence on his sensibility—school and the British secret services—were both somewhat straitened when he entered them. When he arrived at St. Andrew’s prep school at the age of seven, the teachers were largely “older men called out of retirement,” Adam Sisman reports in his 2015 biography, John le Carré. The younger teachers had all been sent away to war. Though le Carré was miserable at St. Andrew’s and later at Sherborne—between the regime of corporal punishment and games of rugby fought “almost literally to death”—school and its upper-class rituals offered stability and a place where he could hide in plain sight.
Wealthy, educated boys of the period were trained to express themselves in a strangely evasive, upbeat manner (barking “Super!” and “Fine!” no matter how dire the situation they faced, and professing to find things “extraordinary” that did not interest them at all); le Carré, who had more to conceal than most, copied their behavior exactly—“even to the extent of pretending I had a settled home life with real parents and ponies,” he wrote in his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel.* The stiff upper lip gave him a way to deflect awkward questions about his real background. It was the first time that, like a spy, he affected a completely conventional appearance while in fact picking his way through a tumultuous reality.
Le Carré became a junior officer in MI5 in 1956, when he was twenty-five—though he had worked for the agency informally since the age of sixteen, including by keeping tabs on his left-leaning peers when he was at Oxford. Like St. Andrew’s, MI5 felt like a place out of time, its upper echelons “staffed by ageing survivors of the glory days of 1939–45” and its middle ranks filled with “former colonial police and district officers left over from Britain’s dwindling empire.” Living for a vanished past, his colleagues took little interest in their jobs; one of his near contemporaries, the future MI5 chief Stella Rimington, remembered older colleagues being drunk all day and heading home in the early afternoons.
It was, in other words, an archetypal midcentury bureaucracy: big and lumbering enough to harbor plenty of incompetence; old and battle-scarred enough to appear ageless and indestructible. In truth, the service as it then existed was on the brink of collapse and would be reformed after a series of breaches, but in the moments before its transformation, it appeared comfortingly immovable to le Carré. At twenty-five, he was attempting to put down roots—he had tried being a schoolteacher, was trying to write, and was newly married—and he felt “rather relieved” to be working for MI5 again, “as one might be returning to a crotchety wife after prolonged absence.” And again, he saw a deeper appeal in the dullness of the organization. “I relished the notion of appearing to be someone dull, while all the time I was someone terribly exciting,” he recalled in 1986.
It’s the dull characters in le Carré who give the novels their finely tuned emotional range. There is George Smiley on his way to work in the middle of the night in Call for the Dead. In the back of the taxi, he folds his coat tightly around himself—an unremarkable act but full of feeling that only he is aware of: “The warmth was contraband, smuggled from his bed and hoarded against the wet January night.” Or there is the schoolboy Jumbo Roach, at the beginning of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, who has been deemed “dull, if not actually deficient” by those around him but who can immediately sense, in his teacher, a wounded spy, “a great attachment that had failed him and that he longed to replace.” It’s hard to think of another spy novelist so attentive to intuitions like these, which do not directly serve the plot but show flickers of the characters’ individuality and create the impression—so central to the aura of mystery he builds up in the books—that most of the time the essence of a person, their small satisfactions and unexplained sadnesses, is hidden.
From his first novel, le Carré’s spies are wary of modernizers who want to remove any room for individuality from working life and strip away everything that makes them distinctive. When George Smiley makes his first appearance, in Call for the Dead, he is already something of a throwback—a quiet, physically unremarkable man who has “entered middle age without ever being young.” Like le Carré’s real-life colleagues, Smiley has seen better days: his World War II adventures are behind him and he is not “material for promotion.” He cannot stand his new boss, an expensively dressed “career man.” Only a few pages into the novel, Smiley is mourning the passing of a more solid era:
Gone for ever were the days of Steed-Asprey, when as like as not you took your orders over a glass of port in his rooms at Magdalen; the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy, and intrigue of a large Government department.
This early version of Smiley is rueful. Alec Leamas, the agent who poses as a defector to East Germany in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963), is more angry than sad. As he walks into the secret service headquarters at Cambridge Circus, a personnel officer asks him to show a pass, and tells him to “fill out a slip.”
“Since when have we had passes? McCall knows me as well as his own mother.”
“Just a new routine. Circus is growing, you know.”
Leamas said nothing, nodded at McCall, and got into the lift without a pass.
There’s a sense in both books that Britain had emerged just about intact from World War II, only to become an outpost of the United States. Smiley blames the new obsession with efficiency on “the NATO alliance, and the desperate measures contemplated by the Americans” in their prosecution of the cold war. Leamas, too, resents the American influence over British state business. At one point an East German handler asks him if he was “one of the mysterious cold warriors,” and he replies, “savagely,” that he was really only an “office boy for the bloody Yanks, like the rest of us.”
It took several years for le Carré’s publishers to understand why his spies had to be so unhappy, their manner so grim. The discussion of his pen name showed their desire to shape him into a faster-paced thriller writer. (He could not write under his real name because he was still working as a spy when he published his first three books.) As Sisman recounts in his biography, the young writer liked “John le Carré”—simple, elegant, a little French. But his publishers urged him to try a name that sounded more hard-hitting, with an American flavor: “Hank Brown” or “Chunk Smith.” Even after the success of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, some reviewers found his writing “overpoweringly literary.” When he submitted the manuscript for his fourth novel, The Looking Glass War (1965), his editor asked for what Sisman calls “more action and less gloom” in the rewrites.
But the gloom was the point, more than the action. Le Carré’s most melancholy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is bathed in anxiety about the fading of the old ruling class as power passes to a cadre of untrustworthy careerists. There are few novels in which so many people are so frustrated about the way they are being told to do their jobs. When Smiley, now retired, meets his old colleague Roddy Martindale for dinner in the book’s second chapter, it’s easy to forget that their adversary was, supposedly, the Soviet Union. All Martindale can talk about is office politics. The service has yet another disingenuous upstart boss—Percy Alleline, a smooth-talking nonentity who takes all the credit and does none of the work. “Living off the wits of his subordinates,” Martindale laments, “well, maybe that’s leadership these days.” Smiley’s former deputy Peter Guillam is unhappy too. Under Alleline’s reorganization, he tells Smiley later in the book, “our autonomy is cut to the bone.”
Though each of these novels drew flattering comparisons to Graham Greene, who also wrote elevated spy fiction, they share with midcentury works of social criticism such as The Organization Man and The Lonely Crowd a sharp distaste for conformity. As much as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an espionage novel, it is an office novel, centered on disgruntled employees. Le Carré’s characters are doubly affronted because, in order to play the game and ascend the ranks, they have to relinquish not only their individuality but also their sense of national identity. (For Bill Haydon, the traitor in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this is a bridge too far—once he realizes that whatever the outcome of the cold war, Britain will no longer be a major power, he loses his allegiance to the West; he is not interested in working on behalf of the United States.)
Le Carré paints Smiley’s American counterparts in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) as humorless military tough guys with crew cuts and monosyllabic names (“Sol,” “Cy,” “Ed”). Magnus Pym’s earnest American neighbor, Grant Lederer III, in A Perfect Spy is an “unlovable” striver from South Bend, Indiana, for whom intelligence work means sifting through data on a computer, rather than the practice of tradecraft. Anyone who wants to be successful has to court the Americans, chatting with them over dry martinis and acting like it’s an honor to be involved at all.
By contrast, le Carré’s heroes in the Smiley novels take pride in being outsidery—a scattering of former insiders who keep up the old ways. At the start of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley is preparing for retirement in the Cotswolds, content to be “out of date, but loyal to his own time.” His most talented officer is another retiree, the veteran Russia watcher Connie Sachs. When he looks her up, she’s living in a poky apartment heated by a dirty coke fire, with a mangy spaniel at her feet. Half drunk, she gives a teary speech about the loss of the British Empire: “All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye, world.” Jerry Westerby, the agent Smiley sends into the field in The Honourable Schoolboy, is another holdover. The second son of a lord, he is the cheery, vacuous sort of Englishman who might have been a colonial administrator in an earlier period; instead he’s a journalist and occasional spy in East Asia. Though well into middle age, he talks the way le Carré did as a school child, with automatic exclamations of “Gosh, super” and “Terrific” that suggest an unnameable loss.
These downwardly mobile public servants were plausible heroes for a waning imperial power that was rapidly reining in its ambitions. Smiley and Guillam do not pretend to have the authority that their pre-war predecessors did—as Guillam comments, in the old days “control sat in heaven and held the strings. Remember?” The most le Carré’s spies can hope for is to be called out of retirement for a last mission. They step in not to save the world but to salvage their own credibility. The books don’t pretend that Britain is important for anything it does anymore but seek refuge in a fuzzier idea of what Britain is: a place where the past is glorious, no one thinks too hard about the harms the British Empire inflicted, and anything that represents tradition is consoling, no matter how dilapidated. The dust and abandoned tea bags that Peter Guillam disturbs when hunting for old files. The “disgusting breakfast of undercooked sausage and overcooked tomato” that Smiley eats at a bed-and-breakfast. The plate of smoked salmon he later produces from a tiny refrigerator. The smell of Connie Sachs’s dog by the fire.
Silverview has many of the elements of those classic books, though it is set closer to the present. Its main character, Julian Lawndsley, is a well-to-do, slightly lost young man who, like Jerry Westerby, resorts to outbursts of politeness when he feels uncomfortable. Julian is a sort of retiree himself: having quickly made enough money for a lifetime, he quits his job in finance and opens a tiny, ailing bookstore in a seaside village. There he meets a man named Edward Avon, who claims to have been friends with his (now deceased) father at school and wants to inveigle himself into Julian’s bookstore business. It’s almost comically obvious that he is a spy: he appears for the first time in a homburg hat and dripping raincoat, as if costumed rather than dressed.
Julian and Edward’s entanglement unfolds in parallel with the story of an intelligence officer named Stewart Proctor, who is investigating Edward and his wife, Deborah. “A stalky, bespectacled man in his mid-fifties” with “a long beakish head,” Proctor is Silverview’s version of George Smiley. Like Smiley, he has an unassuming manner but is renowned among his peers for being able to identify leaks from inside the service. Like Smiley, he has seen his less talented but more ingratiating colleagues rise above him in the hierarchy while he does all the work. Like Smiley, he has an unfaithful wife. It isn’t hard to guess how the two strands of the plot will come together, or that Edward is just as untrustworthy as he seems.
The closest the book comes to vintage le Carré is when Proctor drops in on a pair of old spies, a married couple named Philip and Joan, in a replay of Smiley’s visit to Connie Sachs. Under the pretext that he’s gathering notes for a training exercise, Proctor asks them to take him through their memories of Edward: where he came from, who recruited him, where he might have gone wrong. More revealing than their stories, though, are the retirees themselves. Proctor had imagined them living in “a charming Somerset cottage covered in clematis.” Instead, the house, a “lurid, green-tiled bungalow,” is an eyesore. And his old comrades, once “the golden couple” of the British intelligence services, have changed. Philip is “bowed over a stick” and Joan has become “a horsy woman in elastic-topped slacks and a t-shirt with a wide-angle print of Old Vienna across her expansive bosom.” (Connie is also wearing “trousers with elastic at the waist” when Smiley summons her.)
This couple and this house could be in almost any of le Carré’s early novels. Yet Joan and Philip, like the other characters in Silverview, have a habit of immediately supplying the information needed to further the plot. Though there are hints that they realize that Proctor, the service’s “chief sniffer-dog,” has an ulterior motive, they don’t think twice about giving him a complete biography of Edward: from the childhood that made him a “fanatic” to the mid-career trauma that turned him against his country and prompted him to start stealing state secrets from the hawkish Deborah and passing them to a terrorist organization. Case solved.
Philip and Joan don’t just make the logic of the plot more explicit; they also articulate the underlying attitudes of many of le Carré’s books more clearly than his characters generally do. On the rising tide of bureaucracy, Joan opines, “They’ve got a whole new language. And line managers. And bloody Human Resources instead of a perfectly decent Personnel Department.” Joan elaborates an antiwar stance, with her rather glib take on the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s: “Six tiny nations squabbling over Big Daddy Tito’s Will. All fighting for God, all wanting to be top dog, and nobody to like.” Philip confesses that the work of the British intelligence services in his lifetime did not, in the end, amount to much: “We didn’t do much to alter the course of human history, did we?… I reckon I’d have been more use running a boys’ club.”
It all concludes a little too neatly, the characters each a little too eager to drop the pretense of intrigue. The mood of Silverview is brisk and knowing compared with the melancholic, regretful tone of many of the Smiley books. The pace never really lets up. Everyone speaks and thinks in the same short, irritated sentences. Deborah’s daughter, Lily, on her mother’s secrets: “Mum said she didn’t want me to tell a living soul, so I didn’t. Plus I’m indoctrinated. By your lot. I’m signed up.” Julian on his former career in finance: “I came, I stole, I conquered, I got out. End of story.” One character anticipates “an enormous and enduring stink.” Later, a different character predicts “an unparalleled, five-star clusterfuck.” The layers of abused loyalty, of mounting disappointment, are missing. Everyone has had enough.
It isn’t really le Carré’s fault if Silverview is a less enigmatic novel than we might expect. For one thing, le Carré, who died in 2020 at the age of eighty-nine, never decided to publish the book. He wrote the novel sometime in the mid-2010s—after A Delicate Truth (2013) and before The Pigeon Tunnel (2016)—but kept it in a drawer. In an afterword, le Carré’s son Nick Cornwell, who writes as Nick Harkaway, explains that he found it after his father’s death. He implies that the book was a completed work that his father had redrafted several times. He thought it was worth publishing, even if there’s no indication that le Carré himself ever considered it a finished work.
Given the state of Britain, too, in recent years, it makes sense that the goings-on in Silverview have a brittle quality. Everything Smiley and his author disliked had become the dominant culture. The contest that had been going on in the background between old and new was over. Le Carré lived to see his country run by management consultants and PR gurus, many of them the bullish sons of the aristocracy—a class that has consolidated its power once more in recent decades. The clearest indication of the range of years in which Silverview could be set is a shopkeeper’s assumption, on hearing Julian’s plummy accent, that he “went to Eton…same as the government”; in 2010 David Cameron became the first Old Etonian in nearly fifty years to serve as prime minister (nine years later Boris Johnson became the second). Another revelation that emerged after le Carré’s death, also courtesy of Nick, is that, alienated by Brexit and enraged by Britain’s entry into the Iraq War, he took Irish citizenship in his final year. (His maternal grandmother had been Irish.) One of the last photos of him shows him sitting at a table and grinning, wrapped in the broad green, white, and orange stripes of a large Irish flag.
It was an earlier version of Britain that spurred le Carré’s imagination; he was at his best when his characters didn’t know quite what to make of their moment or one another. By the end of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, George Smiley has still not quite explained Bill Haydon’s betrayal, a messier business than Edward Avon’s. As Smiley takes the train home, he has “a wistful notion of liking Haydon and respecting him: Bill was a man, after all, who had had something to say and had said it. But his mental system rejected this convenient simplification.” Is it Bill he will never fully know, or himself? Finished, at least for now, with the business of spying, Smiley is left with the smaller intrigues of ordinary life: the insoluble problems of his wife, his marriage, and what he is supposed to do next.