A New John LeCarré Protagonist for a New World Order
At the end of the Cold War, the spy-novel market was at a bit of a loss; for more than forty years, it was clear who were the good guys and who were the bad. Granted, in the spy novel, it’s never that clear-cut. But dammit, we had a formula and it worked: Commies bad, Americans and Brits good. When the Berlin Wall came down, so did the shifting alliances, and untrustworthy purveyors of information who worked for them were out of a job. Or so we thought.
John Le Carré has been writing espionage fiction since the 1960s, and he could be forgiven for missing the world of spycraft that East-West tensions produced to such a fabulous (for him) degree. But in his new novel, Agent Running In the Field, Le Carre proves that he’s in tune with the current tensions in the world, where a resurgent Russia challenges the United States once again for the hearts and minds of those who would keep secrets.
He tells his story in Agent Running In The Field through the voice of Nat, a forty-seven-year old veteran of British intelligence who has spent most of his career abroad, playing “the great game” with Soviet adversaries and then their post-Gorbachev replacements. Now looking at retirement from the field, he unexpectedly gets a posting to a long-moribund branch of the London headquarters, where an ambitious younger agent is making the case for surveillance on a Ukranian oligarch close to Putin.
Meanwhile, Nat is also making the acquaintance of Ed, a brutally honest young man who challenges him to badminton and is all too happy to bitch about Brexit, Trump, and the general state of the world. That these threads will intersect, and imperil not just Ed and Florence (the ambitious agent) but also Nat and his wife Prue, almost goes without saying. But just because you can see a cliché coming a mile away doesn’t make it any less entertaining, especially when Le Carré throws a wrench into the proceedings to demonstrate that all is not what it seems.
In the world of spy fiction, Le Carré has earned a reputation as “a writer for adults.” His spies don’t get the gadgets or romances of Britain’s top spy, James Bond (though to be fair, Ian Fleming’s original 007 was a bit more Le Carré-esque on the page than in the movies). Like Len Deighton’s unnamed protagonist of The Ipcress File (named Harry Palmer and played by Michael Caine in the films), Le Carré’s spies lead mundane lives until the unexpected promise of information via a new source gives them a chance to uncover things that could help advance their career, assuming they survive the hostile encounters with spies from other, rival nations. Nat is a Le Carré hero through and through. He’s no one’s idea of a dashing “man of action,” simply a humble civil servant whose skills have earmarked him for a life of subterfuge.
Le Carré’s most recent novel, A Legacy of Spies, looked back to the glory years of the Cold War espionage era, revisiting territory covered in his first great success (The Spy Who Came In From the Cold) and the “Karla trilogy” that began with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It was a nice summation of what had come before; Agent In the Field is a reminder that Le Carre has a grasp of what’s going on now, and how it’s unfolding often before our very eyes. Yes, Trump and Brexit and Putin make cameo appearances, but it cuts much deeper than that. When you live a life of deception, you don’t always get a chance to redeem yourself.
John Le Carré makes palpable the tension between East and West, and the nightmare of a world in which old allies betray trust. It may be quaint to cast Britain as the home for all this intrigue, but often the best spy novels involve England because, while it’s no longer an empire, it has served as a bulwark between Russia and the United States. Just what that means in a world where an American President questions the reliability of his own intelligence service leads us all to a dark place. Agent Running In the Field doesn’t make it any brighter.