Agent Running in the Field (Penguin/Random House), the latest novel from the master of the spy story John Le Carre, is not only a perfect example of what the genre should be, it’s also a pointed commentary on our times. It seems like Le Carre has taken personal umbrage with both the policies of America under Trump and the mess his government has dragged the UK into with the Brexit shambles and these opinions are reflected on almost every page.
Le Carre introduces us to a whole new cast of characters in the UK’s contemporary intelligence community. While times and and objectives may have changed, the work of a field agent remains the same. As you can tell by the title, this story is told through the eyes of a senior field agent, who we only ever know as Nat. Called home to London Nat is fulling expecting to be put out to pasture.
When he’s shunted off to head up a minor office in a dilapidated building in London he fully expects this to be the end of the road. However, a chance meeting, and an unlikely double agent finally coming through with gold, change not only the picture but force him to make some serious choices.
Nat happens to be passionate about badminton and one evening Ed, by chance or not we’re never sure, comes into his club and challenges him to a match. Ed claims to work for some sort of media conglomerate and soon makes it clear how much he despises not only his job, but the Putin, Trump, Brexit triumvirate.
While Nat is mostly in agreement with Ed, although not with the same amount of vigour, he often finds himself simply nodding and smiling during their conversations. Letting Ed have his head.
Le Carre offers us a few clues as to where this might be going, but he’s too good a storyteller to give anything away. However, the more Nat settles back into dealing with his own service, the more we see how far the rot has set in. When a credible operation is scrapped because somebody senior in the service has a wife who has financial dealings with the target we seriously wonder how much longer he can stick it out.
What’s wonderful about Agent Running in the Field is the breezy manner in which the events are related. Le Carre has Nat being so laid back and natural, the epitome of the unflappable field agent, the action is always surprising. We’re drawn into the action almost without even knowing what’s going on but suddenly find ourselves with court side seats to a great display of fancy footwork and deft serves.
All of a sudden Nat’s obsession with badminton doesn’t look so far fetched. Le Carre makes a great analogy between the care and delicacy of an agent’s work in the field with the way a game of badminton plays out.
In Nat Le Carre has created another of his quintessential spy characters. Almost every aspect of his life is treated like a covert operation – even to how he deal with his daughter and her fiancé. Only his wife is in on his secrets, and that’s because she was once part of them. Nat is always on, which I suppose is the natural state for somebody who has spent his entire adult life working in the field.
Nobody has managed to recreate the secret world of spies and subterfuge with Le Carre’s flair and Agent Running in the Field cements his reputation as a master of the genre. Probably the only people who won’t like it are supporters of Putin, Trump and Brexit.