Viking, 2019, 282 pages
Nat, a 47 year-old veteran of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, believes his years as an agent runner are over. He is back in London with his wife, the long-suffering Prue. But with the growing threat from Moscow Centre, the office has one more job for him. Nat is to take over The Haven, a defunct substation of London General with a rag-tag band of spies. The only bright light on the team is young Florence, who has her eye on Russia Department and a Ukrainian oligarch with a finger in the Russia pie.
Nat is not only a spy, he is a passionate badminton player. His regular Monday evening opponent is half his age: the introspective and solitary Ed. Ed hates Brexit, hates Trump, and hates his job at some soulless media agency. And it is Ed, of all unlikely people, who will take Prue, Florence, and Nat himself down the path of political anger that will ensnare them all.
Agent Running in the Field is a chilling portrait of our time, now heartbreaking, now darkly humorous, told to us with unflagging tension by the greatest chronicler of our age.
John le Carré has still got it, and he's still unsentimentally slagging the spy services while making sympathetic Everyman heroes out of the flawed, patriotic bureaucrats who try to eek some dignity and pride out of being spies for a country and a service they can barely stand.
This book, written well into Trump's presidency, has the American president threatening the long-standing "special relationship" between Britain and the U.S., while Brexit is threatening Britain's relationship with Europe. In the shadow of these events, Nat, a mid-level civil servant with a long and respected (but unrewarded and mostly unknown) career in Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, is about ready to pack it in, expecting the service is about to cashier him. Instead, he's asked to take over an office of misfits and deadweight and told it's a sign of their confidence and esteem for him. Don't piss on his back and tell him it's raining, but a pension's a pension, so Nat takes the assignment.
Meanwhile, he's struck up a friendship with a young man at the badminton club named Ed. Ed is very passionate and very outspokenly anti-Trump and anti-Brexit. Nat, who kind of agrees with Ed but after many years of working in the shadows, knows to keep his thoughts mostly to himself, finds Ed refreshing. He's got a little bromance going with his young idealistic friend.
Then it turns out Ed is working for Nat's sister service in British Intelligence, and Ed has discovered shenanigans in the intelligence services. (Say it isn't so!) And Ed is about to get himself in way over his head.
Like all of le Carré's books, this is a deeply cynical novel. The sun is setting on the British empire and half its government is working against itself. There is little honor or glory in punching clocks for Her Majesty's secret service, and yet someone still has to do the grimy, unglamorous work of holding what's left of the empire together with Russia wanting to eat everyone else's lunch, and Nat is one of those cogs doing the work. Until a guy like Ed makes him wonder what's it all for?
Written in le Carré's impeccable style, very very British through and through, and full of wry writ, understatement, and deep, burning anger that only emerges in the spaces between cordialities, Agent Running in the Field is not one of his seminal works, but it proves he's still got spy stories to tell long after the Cold War has ended.
Also by John le Carré: My reviews of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man, and Single & Single.
My complete list of book reviews.