THE UK is facing Brexit and the likelihood of increased dependence on the United States. In heatwave London, the red carpet is being rolled out for President Donald Trump, who is speaking ill of Europe and NATO. And the Russian Federation, under its formerly KGB President — what exactly are the spymasters of Moscow Central up to?
John le Carré’s thrillers are never just about the tradecraft of espionage — however dazzling, as it certainly is in this new novel — but about the interests that the secret world serves and the personal and moral decisions that individuals face.
In Agent Running in the Field, Nat, 47, a veteran British agent-runner and formidable badminton-player, has returned home from his life abroad as a faux diplomat, and the Service has a new job for him pulling together its dowdy outpost in Camden.
He lives in Battersea with his wife, Prue, who was trained for fieldwork, too, but is now a human-rights lawyer. At Nat’s badminton club, Ed, a Millennial with a Nonconformist conscience, seeks him out as a worthy opponent, but also takes to pouring out his affronted pro-European idealism à deux in the club bar in a way that touches a fatherly chord in Nat. Then Nat’s promising junior colleague, Florence, suddenly quits the Service (“the Office”).
To reveal much more plot would be a spoiler; for, as usual with le Carré, it is only as the reader turns each page that details fall into place or prove to be red herrings, eventually to reveal the deeper truth.
There are wonderful scenes, among them a set-piece covert operation that triggers the novel’s crisis; and an evocative and dangerous meeting in Czechoslovakia with a former Russian traitor, living out his time in wealth and misery, who is disillusioned about the country that he served: “You walk out of Europe with your British noses stuck in the air. ‘We’re special. We’re British. We don’t need Europe. We won all our wars alone. No Americans, no Russians, no anyone. We’re supermen.’ The great freedom-loving President Donald Trump is going to save your economic arses. . . He does everything for little Vladi that little Vladi can’t do for himself.”
Church Times readers may worry unduly about the elderly bearded priest described as wearing a “mauve surplice”. But, in this first-person narrative, perhaps he only proves to us that spy training and brilliant deductive agility don’t cover everything.
This is sophisticated entertainment from an author who, at 88, remains sharper than most of us — and who probably won’t need to be in his nineties before he sees it adapted for television.
Agent Running in the Field
John le Carré
Penguin Viking £20