John Le Carré has written twenty-five novels, as well as essays and memoirs, works The Guardian of London says
“charted – pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers – the public and secret histories of his times.”
As far back as his breakthrough novel, The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963), Le Carré has largely written about British spies, their interpersonal politics, their antagonists, and their place in the world. Even The Constant Gardener (2001), an exception, set among diplomats in Kenya, only steps a feint away from East-West espionage into international pharmaceutical scandals, where there is plenty of deceit, duplicity, villainy and cant, staples of all Le Carré’s books.
In Agent Running in the Field, the Russians persist as arch-villains, taking the reader back to Cold War tensions, super-heated by the current Trump-Putin Axis. If the Russians are villainous, the Americans are grasping and overwhelming, pulling strings from afar and getting boots on the ground.
The hero is an experienced British spy, christened Anatoly, later Anglicised to Nathaniel and clipped, buddy-wise, to Nat. The English names have a chummy ring to them: Nat, Prue, Steff, Ed, Flo, Dom. Le Carré quotes Nat’s personnel file to give us his physical and personal attributes. He manages “fluent and capable argument, in the short term”. He is “headstrong” and sometimes resistant to discipline. He is ideally suited to deliver the shakedown that forms the conclusion to the book.
Nat is the hero who tells us the story in clear, deft and often elegant sentences, with set-piece scenes that move the reader about, without ever dropping his or her attention.
Ever since The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), Le Carré’s great novel of his Smiley series, he has often hung a story on the wilfulness and inexperience of a boy; if not entirely callow, then a youth nonetheless, fired up about something, an earnest idealist, who’s impulses and urges are honest but wrong-headed. In Agent Running in the Field (2019), Nat, more worldly-wise and experienced, saves the boy, Ed, from the forces of the State, in a chase sequence that has the mild whiff of an Ealing Studio comedy about it.
The key plot line concerns the chance (?) meeting between Ed and Nat, over a challenge to play badminton. There is more to Ed than the ungainly youth, who admits to working in an unrevealed area of the media, probably on-line, keen to take the club’s shuttle-cock champion down a peg ortwo. The reader wonders why Ed’s out-of-the-blue appearance does not trigger the full-scale forensic uncovering that Nat and his colleagues are advised to pursue in such circumstances.
Weekly badminton sessions and a “kindly uncle/ebullient nephew” friendship develop between the men. Their conversations, over post-match pints, are mainly rants by Ed, airing his (and Le Carré’s?) frustrations at Brexit, Trump, Putin and the British Foreign Secretary (Boris Johnson), Nat’s ultimate superior.
When Ed discovers that elements of the British and American secret services are busy putting the clock forward, to take maximum benefit from the out-workings of Brexit, he embarks upon a solo-run, way beyond his pay grade and experience.
When Ed blows his top, Nat calms him, in his reasonable and put-upon manner.
“Yes, Brexit is indeed an unmitigated clusterfuck, though I doubt there is much we can do to put the clock back.”
Perhaps this is Le Carré speaking, through Nat, the long-serving spy, with years of experience behind him of being duplicitous and patriotic for the Crown, in Moscow, Berlin and other parts east. It is a neat summation of the commitment within the secret and civil services to the survival of the existing order, echoing Supertramp’s album title “Crisis? What Crisis?”
Is Le Carré being humorous when he calls his place of work The Office? It used to be called The Circus, but perhaps the fun has gone out of it for him. The public politics remain resolutely at the macro-level. The private politics are clearly middle-class and at the level of The Office, the cringe-making tv comedy (sic).
With Russian villains and overwhelming Americans, the worst that can be said about the British is that they’re bumbling and individually self-serving, strapped onto ski-lift T-bars on the slopes of the permanent civil service, going up and down, sometimes sideways onto lesser slopes, which is Nat’s situation, as he returns to London to be put out to grass by Dom, his boss, another professional paid to lie and kill when required. Dom survives, as the shakedown unfolds, reportedly set for a safe seat in Parliament, via the Westminster-City of London-Civil Service revolving doors. Le Carré doesn’t tell us which party offers Dom his new home.
As in all Le Carré’s spy novels, there is a God, an all-powerful being, above the fray, but stirring and managing it. In Agent Running in the Field, this God is Welsh, curiously Roman Catholic, though named Bryn for the Non-Conformist Chapel, the Pit and the Valley. Bryn, the top spy in The Office, lives in a gothic villa overlooking Hampstead Heath. He is inscrutable, unflappable and always one step ahead of his underlings. He is minded to be merciful, even as he plunges the knife into Nat.
“Do you still love him? Not carnally. Love him for real?”
The knife draws out the muted, yet impassioned
“I’m fond of him, Bryn.”
There it is, neatly opening the book’s final section, blazing under the typesetter’s star, to confirm its importance, on page 227 of the Viking 2019 paperback edition: the impulse that drives Nat to undertake Ed’sconvoluted and hectic salvation.
There are many other strong scenes, such as the interview between Nat and Bryn. Possibly the best is the dialogue between Nat and his daughter, Steff, on a ski slope. They ascend in a lift, then sweep down on skis in silence, before continuing the dialogue again. Steff, as headstrong as her father, huffs, when he reveals he is a spy. She sends him, and her mother, Prue, back out into the cold.
Is Le Carré having another laugh, naming Nat’s wife Prue? She’s an ace lawyer, focussing on pro bono work. She has major venom for Big Pharma (as does Le Carré himself, fair play to him). The reader learns how the young Nat and Prue made love in their flat in Moscow, where Nat’s cover was as a cultural attaché, with KGB listeners attentive to their every whimper, moan and call. Grim it is, yet the tone remains “Posy Simmonds”.
In the end, Nat and Prue reprise their early Moscow spy-craft, to save the young couple in jeopardy. It is unclear how salvation will work itself out beyond the pages of the book.
Marriage is the remedy for the ills of determined women. Both Nat’s daughter, Steff, who reportedly had great fun with the boys at her boarding school, and Flo, Nat’s junior, who simply grows tired of lying and walks out of the Secret Service, end up engaged to be married to different men, concluding their parts in the narrative. It feels like a modern-day taming-of-the-shrew. Perhaps it is.
If The Spy who Came in from the Coldis a tragedy, Agent Running in the Field is a melodramatic romance. It may be a lesser work – a matter of opinion, obviously – but it is wonderfully written and entertaining. It offers the vicarious pleasures of subterfuge, the chase and a peek into the undercover activities of states. It is a human drama, played out, almost wistfully, against the bellowing background of the clashing tectonic plates of world affairs.
Agent Running in the Field; book; John Le Carré; Viking, London, 2019