John Le Carré, the master of the slow burn, introspective spy novel shows that he well and truly still has it in his latest book Agent Running in the Field. Like many of his earlier books this is a fairly cold assessment of the work of Britain’s security service, told from the point of view of a jaded but still essentially patriotic spy. As in many of his books, Le Carré has plenty to say about the current state of the world but with a twist on the approach he has taken in some of his other more polemical novels.
Nat, a forty seven year old spy, known for turning and running double agents in Europe, has returned to England and is looking down the barrel of a forced retirement. He is thrown a bone by an old colleague and put in charge of a London-based unit called The Haven which keeps an eye on a few turned sleeper agents in Britain. Despite The Haven being considered a backwater, through the efforts of one of his younger, more enthusiastic staff, Nat and his team get a lead on a corrupt Ukrainian oligarch and put in motion a proposal to install surveillance. At the same time, Nat finds himself challenged to a game of badminton by a young upstart called Ed. Nat is club champion in badminton but has also used the game as a recruiting tool in his day and if the narrative is not clear enough, it is clear that something around his developing relationship with Ed is going to go pear shaped.
Le Carré changes up his more usual script in Agent Running in the Field by putting much of the overt political commentary in the mouth of Ed. Ed is pro-Europe, virulently anti-Trump and anti-Brexit. He expounds on these topics over his post-game beer with Nat, who feels that it is polite to nod and listen but possibly, deeper down has some sympathy for Ed’s position. And as the plots and schemes play out and Nat finds himself caught in the middle, the sympathy starts to deepen.
Agent Running in the Field shows Le Carré still in fine form as he once again manages to chronicle some of the key political and social issues of the day filtered through the lens of the spy novel. There are few guns, no explosions, no big set pieces, just people talking in rooms or listening to other people talking in rooms. But Le Carré set the template for this style of spy thriller with a conscience and Agent Running in the Field shows once again why he is still one of the best.