At 88, John le Carré Keeps
Running in the Spy Game
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2020 -- You don't have to work for a global intelligence agency to appreciate the plight that 47-year-old Nat faces in what appear to be the last days of his 25-year-career with the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). But as you might expect in a John le Carré novel, the aptly titled Agent Running in the Field, there's a hiccup to Nat's anticipated "retirement."

Set in 2018, this 2019 thriller name-checks Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and considers the woeful state of both American and British politics. Although dubbed a "Brexit novel" by some critics, Agent Running in the Field is not merely an expression of le Carré's frustration with global politics in general and London's politicos in particular. It stands on its own merits as an engrossing contemporary spy thriller by the master of the espionage genre.

Le Carré does not disappoint: There are some brilliant passages of intellectual interplay among the characters in his 25th novel. At 88 years old, the prolific le Carré has lost none of his skill with plot, character and, most notably here, dialogue.

It has always struck me that Le Carré novels could easily be misclassified as nonfiction thanks to his historical references and his true-to-life depiction of spies, their lifestyles and their methods. So while his characters lack the glamour of, say, Ian Fleming's dashing-but-unrealistic James Bond, they are no less engaging than the flamboyant 007.

Agent Running in the Field admittedly gets off to a slow start. I had trouble getting through the opening chapters, which highlight Nat's personal and professional backstory and what seems like an irrelevant revelation: his status as badminton champion of his local club and his delight in competing. But that information and the seemingly out-of-the-blue arrival of a young challenger are central to the plot. My patience was rewarded as le Carré pulls you in and the rest of the book moves along with some twisty plot turns.

Instead of being let go, Nat (née Anatoly, no last name provided) is "offered" one last assignment: taking over The Haven, a "Mickey Mouse outfit" that's "a dumping ground for resettled [Russian] defectors of nil value." At the underperforming station, he'll oversee "fifth-rate informants on the skids."

It's a no-win situation for Nat: If he turns things around, his new boss (a much-disliked former boss of both Nat and his wife Prue) will take the credit and advance even further in the service. But if he fails, Nat is a few steps closer to being ousted.

With the "CV of a middle-ranking diplomat who never made the grade," Nat has spent years "running" agents in the field throughout Europe. A Brit with both Scottish and Russian heritage, Nat is a fairly accomplished agent, but lacks the sophistication and the power of, say, le Carré's George Smiley. And despite the occupational hazards working in a business that is innately corrupt, ugly and sometimes violent, Nat appears to be a sincere and decent guy.

His new role is complicated when a brilliant and valued twenty-something employee threatens to quit when a project she's pitching--perhaps The Haven's most important operation--is nixed. Her anger and unhappiness--along with an unexpected romance--have a major impact on Nat's plans for The Haven.

This new job will prove more complex and more challenging than Nat could have imagined. Despite his experience with the double-dealing and disreputable characters, Nat, like the reader, isn't always exactly sure who is "running" whom and for what purpose. The questionable methods employed on agency colleagues and their opponents in order to attract and turn potential agents is mind-boggling. Through it all, it's clear that Le Carré, who worked for both MI5 and MI6 before his writing career, is well-acquainted with the lengths to which intelligence agencies will go.

When Nat's loyalty is questioned by his colleagues, it's shocking how quickly even a valued co-worker can suddenly be declared persona non grata. And at times it feels as if Agent Running in the Field is as much about office politics as it is about espionage.

Fortunately for Nat, there's some solace on the home front: Prue seems happy that Nat is eyeing a more "normal" life after years of bouncing around the globe away from his family. Prue once worked with Nat in the field, but left because a "lifetime of deception" did not appeal to her. She now battles for justice as a human rights lawyer. She isn't thrilled with the events that lead Nat to undertake this assignment, but she's supportive and an asset in Nat's arsenal as he attempts to salvage his mission.

Le Carré, of course, pioneered and perfected 20th-century British spy novels with books such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley's People (1979), the last three offered together in The Quest for Karla (1982). His Cold War-centric novels have achieved both critical and financial success and have been published around the globe. But decades after the end of the Cold War, with Britain still in conflict with Russia, le Carré is now tracking the 21st-century bad guys.

Today's Russians--"nastier than they ever were, more brazen, more meddlesome, and more numerous"--are even more dangerous and intriguing in the hands of le Carré, the ultimate "spymaster." One can only hope that Agent Running in the Field will not be the last work in his 50-plus-year writing career.

A bonus for le Carré fans: He narrates the audiobook of the novel with finesse and charm. This would make a great gift for any le Carré aficionado.

In the mood to view rather than read or listen? There is a raft of TV shows and movies based on his books. Le Carré's favorites? The Night Manager, a 2016 miniseries with Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman and Tom Hiddleston; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the 1965 film starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner; and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the 1979 miniseries starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley.