Silverview by John le Carré (Viking, £20)

When he died in December 2020, John le Carré was, as usual, at work on a novel. It remains unfinished and forms part of a trove of stories currently being sifted through by an archivist under the direction of his children. Don’t bet against the best of the work seeing the light of day some time soon.

But the creator of imperturbable spy master George Smiley and author of seminal Cold War novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold also left a completed manuscript, apparently written contemporaneously with his final two novels, A Legacy Of Spies and Agent Running In The Field. Now, ahead of what would have been his 90th birthday on Tuesday, publishers Viking unveil it.

Silverview opens in a street in London’s West End. It’s the kind of street which, in earlier le Carré novels, would have been dowdy and unassuming. Today, thanks to foreign buyers hungry for big ticket real estate, it is nothing of the sort. Now, le Carré tells us, the houses are “so grand they had no numbers at all”. Navigating this street with her two-year-old son in a pram is a young woman called Lily. She arrives at a “pretentious doorway”, buzzes, and is admitted. She has a message to deliver to somebody inside. To him and only him.

The place is a safe-house and the interior, at least, is familiar to fans of le Carré’s oeuvre. The sitting room is “spartan”, the furniture lumpy. There are grubby net curtains, a scratched glass coffee table and a Thermos flask filled with something you just know isn’t hand-roasted single origin Arabica. The recipient of the message is also familiar, or at least his type is. He’s Stewart Proctor, a man whose family boasts among its number QCs, doctors, a broadsheet editor, “no politicians, thank God“ and “a healthy crop of spies”. The Proctors send their brightest to Winchester, their second-brightest to Marlborough and a few here and there, “where need or principle dictated”, to state school. It’s a lovely, concise pen portrait of the kind of people still populating the upper reaches of the civil service, the law and the media.

Proctor, of course, is a spy himself. Known within the service as Proctor the Doctor, he’s a high-ranking intelligence official whose job is cutely termed Domestic Security. In other words he hunts moles and plugs leaks but, like George Smiley, he does it in a quiet, studious, polite and roundabout fashion. He’s an engaging creation. Let’s hope le Carré has put him to use elsewhere in whatever unpublished work remains.

So what is the nature of the leak Proctor is investigating here? Who is the mole? Is there actually a leak at all and, if there isn’t, does that mean there’s no mole either? Fielding cryptic text messages from on high (“Stewart for Christ’s sake don’t frighten the horses”) Proctor is soon on his way to “one of East Anglia’s more remote stations”. There he is met by a Jeep and whisked off to an air force base containing a nuclear command centre, once vital but now effectively mothballed. Still, the Americans on the base mustn’t find out that something’s amiss. Are these the horses Stewart must not frighten?

Cut to a small seaside town in the wilds of – wouldn’t you know it? – East Anglia and the action, such as it is, begins. Julian Lawndsley, aged 33, has jacked in a lucrative if soulless job in the City and bought himself a bookshop, despite not knowing the first thing about books or literature. After much consideration he has christened it Lawndsley’s Better Books and installed a coffee machine and a tiny café area. One morning, in a greasy spoon run by an émigré Pole on the down-at-heel sea-front, he bumps into a customer from the previous evening, a man who bought nothing but who recommended he stock WG Sebald’s The Rings Of Saturn. Typically, Julian had never heard of it.

The man is Edward Avon. Le Carré gives him a fawn raincoat to wear and pops a broad-brimmed homburg hat over his “rebellious mop of white hair”. He has graceful hands and reads The Guardian. Julian thinks he has a “very slight foreign flavour to his cadence” and notices that Edward gives Sebald’s surname its proper German pronunciation – Zaybult.

The novel’s title is an English translation of Silberblick, the name of the house in Weimar in which philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spent his final years. It’s the name Edward has given to the house he shares with his clever, imperious wife Deborah, who is dying of cancer. Later, Julian is invited to dine there, by which time he and Edward have formed an unlikely friendship, one strong enough to not be tested by several unlikely requests from the older man.

The first of these is the proposal that he and Julian pool their talents to open a bookshop-within-a-bookshop, to be called The Republic Of Literature. Julian will provide the basement (and, importantly, the computer), while Edward will knock up a list of what’s needed, stock wise. The second is that Julian take a trip to London to deliver a letter to a woman Edward refers to as Mary, though that obviously isn’t her real name. A lover or a mistress, Julian presumes. Well, that’s Teddy for you.

Silverview is relatively slight (just over 200 pages) and unusually breezy, and there’s no doubting where the author’s sympathies lie or who he has in his cross-hairs. Tories, lawyers, the City and the mediocre talents currently running the country and the intelligence services all take a hit. So do cultivated ambivalence and – rich this, for a spy writer – dishonesty.

But the novel is also typically (and pleasingly) elliptical. As ever, le Carré circles his characters masterfully, letting the parallel stories – Proctor and his investigation, Julian and Edward and their putative Republic Of Literature – spiral down towards each other. Lily, of course, emerges with a starring role, and there’s a dazzling episode in which Proctor meets up with two old service hands, a married couple, to winkle out a fact or three about his target. It’s classic le Carré: what is said and what is meant never quite cohere. Close your eyes and you can almost imagine it’s George and Connie Sachs discussing Moscow Centre hoods over a bottle of Scotch. And who is the target? That would be telling.

If this is the quality le Carré was producing in the last years of his life, we can be certain there are further posthumous delights coming our way.