Before I get to the book, I’d like the call out the publisher for putting a cover price of £20 on the hardback edition of this, which comes in at around 200 generously margined pages set in the font Dante at 13½ points with a 16 point line height. I saw the book advertised in a supermarket the other day for £15, which is also too much for what amounts to a novella, a small watercolour as opposed to a great big oil painting. It’s not as if David Cornwell, who died last year, needs the money. Colour me unsurprised at the greed and cynicism on display with that typesetting and that pricing. I don’t object to short novels, in fact I love them, but this only qualifies as a ‘novel’ because – like a teenager trying to make their homework look longer – they used a big font. I’m a little cynical too, that none of the reviews I read of this mentioned that it was so skimpy.
Then there’s the title, which one can’t help thinking is a little too on-the-nose, and feels like a working title more than anything. I’m not blaming John Le Carré for either of these things.
As to the book, it’s great. As beautifully written by this master stylist as any of his later works, although nothing to frighten the horses. It reads in fact like the opening section of one of his recently longer books, like the opening salvos of A Perfect Spy, with more plot to come. But it’s not an opening, it’s a closure, a farewell to one of the great British writers of the post-1945 era.
A former city trader, now a bookshop owner, encounters an old gent who says he knew the former trader’s father, who seems to have been one of those randy vicars so beloved of the English tabloids. The old gent lives with his dying wife up in a house called Silverview, and they have a daughter, and he asks the not-exactly-naive bookshop owner to do him a favour or two. Of course, this all ends up involving the security services, but it’s all as slight as can be.
The real pleasure in this is the writing, the narrative voice, Le Carré’s way with free direct speech, and the slightly poignant feeling that this is the last time we get this pleasure. And there’s a funeral scene, undercut with inadvertent comedy, which one can’t help thinking is Le Carré’s farewell to himself.
By all means, read this and enjoy it, but do wait until it’s cheaper.