Monday 11 November 2019

Agent Running in the Field: Old master le Carré spins another web of intrigue with customary aplomb


John le Carré
John le Carré
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

I still remember the first time I read John le Carré. This was years ago - I was a teenager - so I'm not certain which book: possibly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?

Whichever one, I was blown away. I hadn't realised you were allowed to write espionage like this. Previously, I'd only read cartoonishly glamorous stuff like Ian Fleming: entertaining, sure, but not very representative of that strange, melancholy profession.

Le Carré's book was gloomy, complex, morally ambiguous and slow-moving (though not without moments of tension and excitement), cast in dreary shades of brown and grey rather than the bright-azure splash of James Bond. It was fantastic, I was hooked, and have ploughed through a dozen or so more in the intervening years.

The good news is, Le Carré is still producing new work, even now at the grand old age of 88. The better news is, his latest, Agent Running in the Field, is a fine novel. Not quite The Little Drummer Girl levels of greatness, but an intelligent, expertly paced story which marries Le Carré's thriller-crafting skills with his literary brilliance.

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Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré

Our narrator is Nat, a 47-year-old agent of SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) lately returned home to England after many years abroad. Wife Prue, one of the few people to know Nat's real job, works as a lawyer for a left-wing group; daughter Steff, for now unaware that Dad's a spook, is a student.

Nat feels that he may, just about, be on the verge of enforced early retirement - espionage burns 'em up and throws 'em out early, you'd presume - so is reasonably happy when asked to take over the Haven, an obscure SIS sub-station in London. His task is to run the Haven's agents: mostly former Eastern Bloc dissidents.

The Russian Bear, everyone in the game accedes, is wreaking havoc in the West, running rings round UK spies. The shadow of Putin looms large and black over this book, as do - for not entirely the same reasons - Trump and Brexit.

Le Carré takes the opportunity to make some political points about all of this, which I must admit made my heart sink when I saw it mentioned in the blurb - sloganeering and art are like oil and water. Thankfully, the anti-Trump, pro-Remain stuff is brief, and the point not hammered home too obviously.

Anyway, into Nat's life comes Ed, a gangly, awkward twenty-something who basically accosts him at the badminton club and insists on a game. They play, strike up an unlikely rapport, and continue to meet regularly.

Ed is full of piss and vinegar, an old-fashioned leftie, forever railing against "the right", the Tories, Trump, Brexit and anything that threatens the European project, which he sees as a beacon of sense, progress and rationality in a world slowly going mad. Nat listens to all this in a detached, avuncular sort of way.

Things get complicated when one of Nat's agents alerts him to the imminent arrival in London of a senior figure from Moscow Centre. Something big is brewing, involving classified material being passed to the Russians. Nat organises an operation to track the mole and his Russian contact - which is when the bottom falls out of his world.

I won't reveal any further (and will resist the urge to make a joke about you 'not having a high-enough clearance level' to know more than this). Suffice to say, Agent Running in the Field spins its web of mystery, double-cross, divided loyalties and murky allegiances with the assurance of an old master. And a master, 25 novels and almost 60 years in the game, is what John le Carré remains. Or, better yet, spy master.

Agent Running in the Field John le Carré Viking, hardback, 288 pages, €18.99

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