Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
After so many years writing thrillers set in the Cold War era, in his 25th novel, Agent Running in the Field, the master has not lost his touch. From the beginning, this book is tense and gripping. His command of the language of spies, the protocols of MI6, is formidable and he instantly presents the reader with characters whose lives are unpredictable, complex and their ordinariness carrying lurking dangers.
Anatoly, Nat, is comfortably enjoying life. An experienced agent for MI6 and in his forties, he now has time to relax. He is an excellent badminton player, and this leads to his meeting Ed, another significant character, who is disenchanted with the current British society. Nat is married to Prue, a human rights lawyer, engaged in a case against Big Pharma. Steph, their daughter, is passionately devoted to her ideals. Nat mentions in a humourous aside that “she loves me, but from a height”.
It is a tribute to Le Carré’s ability as a brilliant writer that he is able to imbue an air of suspense into the banal description of Ed, newly arrived on the scene, preparing for a game of badminton in the locker room. Every detail is noted, from the repeated locking and unlocking of his locker to where he puts his key and its attached ribbon.
The plot of Agent Running in the Field gathers intensity after Nat’s visit to “Woodpecker” in the Czech Republic. The book becomes unputdownable.
Arcady, code-named Woodpecker, a former double agent who worked with Nat, has a bitter and cynical view of current world politics, but it’s none the less daunting as many would consider it clear-sighted.
Upon Nat’s return to London, events make the scene even more gripping. The previous action establishing Sergei as a fresh agent in the field, the disaffection and retirement of a young admired colleague and the query hanging over the badminton-playing Ed, complicate life in the Service for him.
The most significant feature of this novel is the barely controlled angry criticism of the standard of British “democracy“ in 2019. Characters may voice these thoughts but they are obviously a vehicle for Le Carre’s own. The cabinet consists of “minority Tory 10th raters” obsessed by the “lunacy of Brexit”.
The hero, Nat, believes the country is in “free fall” with PM Johnson having been elevated from being “a pig-ignorant Foreign Secretary”. His despising of Trump is clear as is his exposing Putin and the resurgence and steady rise of Russian power around the globe.
While Brexit distracts the British, the new Cold War with Russia emerges as being very different from that which ended in ’89. The new Russia is now nastier than it ever was and more brazen.
Not completely despairing, however, Le Carré presents the idealism of the young as possibly a means of salvation. In the characters of Ed, Nat’s daughter Steph, and his colleague Florence, there is a passionate rejection of the new ideology of the West based on money.
No punches are pulled in calling government pro-Brexiteers a “bunch of elitist carpetbaggers posing as men of the people”. Harsh in his criticism of Trump, he refers to him as the “worst ever President” and “Putin’s shithouse cleaner”.
As the book is in the first person, the reader sweats in sympathy with Nat. His progress is riveting reading. John Le Carré’s own experience in the Intelligence service lends a fascinating air of credibility and interest to the action.
This may not be in the ranks of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” but it offers a marvellous read. Even though not his best, it does urge to be reread.
Just the resolution strikes a disappointing note. It has more the touch of Hollywood than the hand of a first-rate spy thriller writer such as Le Carré, which is evidenced through the remainder of the book.
The final pages are too hurried and carry more than a hint of the action movie. Writing this at 88, he is to be forgiven this flaw in an otherwise marvellous example of the genre.
Agent Running in the Field
John Le Carré
281 pages. $32.99 paperback.