The Reading Chair: Agent Running in the Field” by John le Carré
At 88, John le Carré, one of the greatest writers in any genre, is still kicking it, still writing books that entertain and compel with graceful style, vivid characterizations, fascinating, labyrinthine plots and a keen eye for the world his books inhabit. He remains the very best at fusing high literary values with popular pleasures. Though its bones are made up of the classic spy story, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is said in some quarters to be one of the best novels about the post-World War II British establishment and the grimy shadows of espionage.
While the theme of how espionage reflects the human capacity for concealment and deceit remain central to his books, times have changed. With the old Cold War long over, it was thought for a time that le Carré and other writers in the field had lost all relevance. But Cold War II has begun and espionage, rightly and wrongly, has not lost its relevance and neither has le Carré.
But he has changed his approach. His more recent novels have pruned the rich garden of his earlier prose almost to the bark of the branch. They’re less like the deeply woven carpets of narrative and description that were a hallmark of his earlier work. The politics have also become more forwardly placed, instead of lurking in the background, or muttering underneath like a poisoned stream. For me, a bit of the mystery has gone away. The books are still very good, but they feel a little generic, though they’re still better than most anyone else’s.
Le Carré’s latest, Agent Running in the Field is the latest twist in this evolution. The plot is typically, and pleasingly, complex. Nat, a forty-plus year veteran agent runner of MI6, is nearing retirement and a bloody good thing, too, where he’s concerned. Though a loyal British subject, he feels he’s a European at heart as his beloved Britain is tumbling into Brexit nihilism with neither the Right nor the Left able or willing to provide any guidance or help. Meanwhile, the European Union threatens to crumble into disunity while gangster tyrannies on all sides circle like wolves.
Yet, among his fears for his country’s future, Nat still finds joy in his life, through his long sturdy marriage to Prue, a former fellow field agent now a successful London lawyer drawn to pro bono cases. Nat is also a ringer at that most underrated sport, badminton (one I grew up playing on a regulation badminton court, so you can imagine how I lifted my racket in triumph at seeing it take center stage in a major novel). Nat is a champion at his club, despite his age. He has, as he quotes from his own personnel file, “a light touch and welcoming nature that invites trust.”
Nat’s easy nature leads him to make a new friend, a badminton buddy. While relaxing at his club one day after a vigorous workout, he’s approached by a young chap named Ed Shannon who’s seeking a coach and mentor to improve his game. Flattered, Nat takes him up on it.
Both men are evasive about their actual lines of work. Ed, a “researcher,” is also one for talk, all of it about the calamity of Brexit and the disastrous turn of events involving the U.S and a Certain Executive. It’s a subject he can’t shut up about, especially with someone as affable as Nat. While Nat has a more nuanced view of the situation he likes Ed, admires his loquacious idealism and just might turn him into a good badminton player.
Meanwhile, on the intelligence front, thanks to some inter-office political shenanigans, Nat is assigned to substation Haven, an MI6 office of low repute that specializes in turning Russian agents. (The dedicated Communists of Cold War I are now murderous oligarchs — it’s no longer Soviet troops that are invading but Russian oligarch money). Nat winds up supervising a young agent named Florence, a young woman as passionate and excitable as Ed, who presents her spy bosses with a very useful plan to infiltrate, and hopefully turn, an oligarch residing in London.
But for mysterious reasons, the operation falls apart, right about the time that Nat invites Florence into a badminton foursome with Ed. At about the same time, she resigns abruptly from MI6 and both she and Ed disappear off Nat’s radar. Eventually, as you’ll guess, these two plot lines eventually meet in a treacherous tangle, with the fate of the entire EU hanging in the balance.
Agent Running in the Field springs along as the plot perambulates far and wide, even making a puzzling side trip to eastern Europe. Despite the urgency of the theme (and le Carré’s underlying anger), it’s written with a youthful air of wit and romance as it blithely rips its story from current headlines. (You’ll recognize significant players almost immediately.) There’s always a risk that “today’s headline” novels become tomorrow’s fish wrapping, but I guess that not even the great le Carré can resist that siren call. Staying relevant sometimes means clinging to the always slippery “now.”
The novel ends on a somewhat hopeful note. Le Carré has always been a strict realist, unafraid of the depths to which his characters sink (drawn with exquisite pain and accuracy in another of his classics, A Perfect Spy). Yet, even he realizes, by my guess, that some spies deserve a little light when they come in from the cold.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” will appear in the upcoming anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, 2020). He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller, which was praised as “incendiary” by David Corbett (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday; The Art of Character)! His contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.