Agent Running in the Field – John le Carré

Viking

Rating: 4 stars

Le Carré is the old fox of British fiction. His novels of spying, intrigue and terrorism have spanned my reading life from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in the ’60s to this current blast against Brexit, Putin, Trump, Johnson, and the whole rotten world order where ideology is lost to money. The old cry that genre fiction suffers from literary snobbery never diminishes. But if you think le Carré’s novels are about spying and not human nobility and frailty you miss the point of his work.

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Nat is forty-seven. A spy, a traditional agent runner who has graced the stage for a little too long. He is brought home to his long-suffering, pro bono lawyer wife and traditionally feisty and difficult daughter for a pension and badminton. But he is given one last chance in what is now an underfunded, crumbling SIS Russia section. After decades of somnolence Russia is now a huge threat. Nat is to take charge of the Haven, a nest of ageing and largely used-up Russian double agents in a peeling house in Camden Town. The only spark of life is the brilliant probationer, Florence, who is building a case against an obscenely rich oligarch. How far do you think she’ll get with that when half London is owned by Russia?

Nat, rather weirdly, befriends Ed, a twenty-something who inhabits the fringe of the spectrum and challenges him to badminton matches. Ed is in the media – but we don’t believe that, do we? Nat tells Ed that he’s a businessman and, though they have little in common except visceral hatred of Brexit, they meet twice a week.

The novel is modern in its concerns. The Foreign Secretary (Johnson) is “pig-ignorant”; the Cabinet are tenth-rate; Trump, a neo-fascist, is Putin’s “shithouse cleaner”. Le Carré believes that Brexit is a twin-pronged plot by British posh boys who see filthy lucre for themselves and Russia, aided by their puppet Trump, in breaking up Europe. Keep this thought in mind as the web develops. It’s the whole point.

Le Carré’s style is as crisp, honed and clear as ever. But in a novel set in 2018 I’m afraid his vintage shows through alarmingly at times. An editor should have dealt with many of the time warps. A few examples at random:

Young girls and their swains splash and chatter.

A Caribbean-born receptionist addresses Nat as “Mister Sir Nat”.

Whippersnappers.

Gymnasium.

Not immune to female charms.

Doing something “hush-hush”.

Twenty-somethings having regular girly lunches at Fortnum’s. (Perhaps they do. If they ever did.)

It is in Nat’s relationship with Florence and his daughter that we can feel the author’s age showing through most clearly. Younger readers may be angered, but they should forgive this in an eighty-eight year old and survey the bigger picture. All such awkwardness could have been removed by a modern editor, of course. But perhaps le Carré won’t be edited. I don’t know.

The plot involves a “sleeper” who wakes, an MI5 clerk who spies through idealism, dirty politics, and a rather contrived love match. There are unlikely coincidences and a hurried incredible denouement.

A great read with flaws. I hope he writes for at least another ten years.

CAV Profile RichardReviewed by Richard

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