Fans of John le Carré’s spy novels may have feared his career had peaked with the end of the Cold War. Before then, the stakes seemed higher and the enemies unmistakable if not always overtly detectable. Since the early nineties, there was an interlude of years when the author’s new books seemed mostly to reflect back on more perilous times. A Legacy of Spies (2017), for example, is a reexamination of the case files of le Carré’s breakthrough book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963).
But now with the resurgence of Russian strategic nastiness, the bad old days are back — and with a vengeance. As in some of le Carré’s more recent novels, Nat, the first-person narrator and protagonist of Agent Running in the Field, is a veteran British intelligence officer who is about to retire. Over the years, he’s had a series of foreign postings, including to Moscow. He considers his accomplishments and his tradecraft rather good. But now he’s apparently fallen out of favor with his colleagues and is about to be put kindly on the shelf until he’s bored enough to start collecting his pension.
All through his working life and now into a hiatus, Nat has also been an expert-level badminton player. One day in the private club located within walking distance of his flat in Battersea, Nat is accosted by a lanky stranger — the young, geeky, and earnest Ed. Ed challenges Nat to a match. The astute reader will guess that this fellow may have an agenda beyond racquet sports and that he is or will be somehow caught up with Nat in the Great Game. The interaction between these two characters and the international political implications of their developing friendship are the crux of a fiendishly tangled plot — which, it should be noted, at no time involves assassination or torture. Not even fisticuffs.
The risk of some spoilers here is almost unavoidable. But I will try not to give the game away. Suffice it to say that Ed turns out to be either an idealistic victim or a cunning perpetrator. And Nat could have much more to fear from his own service than from their traditional adversaries. At the root of it all is the bureaucratic chaos and confusion over Brexit, along with the perplexity and consternation of both Brits and Europeans in general about the ominous rightward shift in U.S. politics.
Ed is shocked and dismayed about the populist movements in both the U.S. and his own country. He wants to know whether Nat agrees, which he does reluctantly. But that doesn’t mean the old spy is inclined to do anything about it. And in addition to Ed’s leftist ideals, he is enamored of postwar progressive Germany, where he lived for a time and became fluent in the language. He regards Brexit as a plot abetted by allies of Vladimir Putin to weaken and perhaps even break up the European Union. In his government clerical job, Ed has access to top-level briefs. When he discovers a secret plan to weaken Germany in favor of America post-Brexit, he decides to leak sensitive documents. In Nat’s official capacity as an agent-runner, it would be his duty to expose and then thwart or compromise Ed and his intentions. But given their friendship and Nat’s sympathetic political leanings, perhaps he should help Ed rather than oppose him?
The plotting is intricate, the relationships intertwined and deviously knotted. There are double agents and possibly double-doubles. Le Carré weaves the story with such subtlety that you might not guess all the implications even after you’ve turned the last page.
Most crucially, is Ed witting or unwitting? Is he aware from the outset that Nat is a spy? When Ed finally commits to his decision to betray his employers, does he fully understand which network he has joined? Are the British spy-masters chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole? Nat eventually puts it all together, takes decisive action, and drops hints to us along the way. Assembling them all for yourself is to savor a masterful spy novel that is mostly a mind game and ultimately a straightforward, impassioned, and angry political statement.
Le Carré, born David Cornwell, was posted to Bonn early in his diplomatic-cover career. Hence the title of one of his early novels, A Small Town in Germany (1968), which dealt with a fictional resurgence of Nazism there. Cornwell has been and remains decidedly pro-European and obviously believes fervently that Brexit spells unmitigated disaster for the welfare not only of the UK but of the entire Western bloc.
Gerald Everett Jones is author of nine novels, including Clifford’s Spiral and Preacher Finds a Corpse, and he hosts the GetPublished! Radio Show.