Agent Running in the Field: A Novel
“Agent Running in the Field is a pleasure to read. It’s a worthy addition to the John Le Carré canon at a time when bestselling authors don’t always deliver the goods . . .”
Now 47 years old and at the apparent end of his career with the Secret Intelligence Service, Nat returns home to London facing an uncertain future. Expecting to be let go, he’s instead offered the job of running the Haven, a “run-down London substation that’s . . . a Mickey Mouse outfit, light miles from the mainstream.” His job will be “either to get it on its feet or speed it on its way to the graveyard.”
While trying to readjust to life in England, put back together the pieces of a fractured marriage, and feel his way forward with the agents now under his wing, Nat forms an outside friendship with Ed Shannon, an odd young man who shares Nat’s passion for badminton.
After their matches, Nat indulgently listens to Ed’s passionate opinions on Brexit, Donald Trump, Syria, and his vaguely described job. But when Nat’s work and Ed’s anger unexpectedly intersect, Nat must make a series of decisions that will affect everyone’s lives.
Agent Running in the Field is the latest offering from John Le Carré, the acknowledged master of espionage fiction. It’s his 25th novel, joining a list highlighted by such classics as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Tailor of Panama (1996), and The Constant Gardener (2001).
Le Carré’s forte as an author of spy novels begins with his ability to portray effectively the dense, confounding bureaucracy of the Office and its sister agencies within the UK government. When the Haven actually generates an operation worthy of consideration, for example, Nat and his agent find themselves facing a murky approval process that raises more questions than answers.
Another of the author’s major claims to fame is his ability to engage the reader with glimpses of tradecraft that lend a remarkable sense of verisimilitude to the action. In Agent Running we encounter traditional procedures such as a field agent holding a copy of the Yorkshire Post in his right hand if the planned meeting is on, or in his left hand if it must be aborted.
For their part, Moscow Center has instructed their operative in London, who works for Nat as a double agent, to put up a “No Nukes” sticker in the window of his basement apartment to indicate that he has received and understood his instructions. Since this particular protest receded into the background long ago, Nat must have his Forgery Department print one up.
Le Carré also excels at tying his stories into the political crises of the day, whether they involve the former Soviet Union, strategically located countries such as Panama, or the war on terror. In Agent Running, the author uses Ed as a vehicle for expressing strong opinions on Brexit, which Nat himself concedes “is indeed an unmitigated clusterfuck, though I doubt there is much we can do now to put the clock back.”
Equally forceful is Ed’s view of Donald Trump, whom he describes as “a threat and incitement to the entire civilized world . . . presiding over the systematic no-holds-barred Nazification of the United States.” While some American readers may not be fully aware of how their president and his actions are viewed abroad, Le Carré is more than willing to include a British take on Trump in this one.
As an aging spy nearing the end of his career, Nat is a character familiar to fans of Le Carré, but it’s quite simply impossible to match the elegant determination and intelligence of George Smiley as a protagonist. We know Nat mostly for his obsession with badminton, his love of his wife Prue, and his typical distrust of senior management. Beyond that, the portrait is a little thin.
Secondary characters are likewise somewhat underdone. Prue is interesting as an activist lawyer and a spy spouse who received training from the Office on how life would unfold when Nat is working, but there was room for development of her character that the author declined to explore. The same may be said for Florence, the Haven agent, who also feels a little sketched in. And Dom, as the pompous and incompetent head of station, has certainly been seen before.
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the novel is its ending, which feels hurried and rather truncated. One can only imagine the author working diligently away on his manuscript until suddenly receiving an email reminding him that his deadline to submit is the day after tomorrow. Time left only to bring things to a tidy close. Readers will be forgiven if they re-read the last 10 pages of the novel to figure out whether they missed something important.
Nonetheless, Agent Running in the Field is a pleasure to read. It’s a worthy addition to the John Le Carré canon at a time when bestselling authors don’t always deliver the goods once they reach their 25th novel. No such worries in this case.