18 December 2019

Review - Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré

Cover design by Superfantastic
Agent Running in the Field
John Le Carré
Penguin, 17 October 2019
HB, 281pp
Source - HB purchased at my local bookshop, audio via online subscription.

Agent Running in the Field is another book that I have been catching up with on audio. Again, I cheated and switched to the hardback as I approached the end (I had to finish!) It was a surprise to me to find that the story is narrated by the author himself who does a very good job of inhabiting the range of accents and intonations needed for the different characters. (I did feel though that at times, the characterisations do cross the line from giving someone a distinctive voice that conveys their nationality or social background, to demonstrating that Le Carré likes or dislikes them: see Dom, for example, as one who is voiced as unpleasant and almost slimy.)

I love Le Carré's thrillers, I always have and I always will, and I've been delighted in his recent books to see him returning to core territory, focussing on what he used to call the Circus, now the "Office". (I don't know if that is accurate jargon, when I have heard "Office" used in Civil Service circles it's always referred to the Home Office). They are pared down, short, books giving us protagonists up to their eyes in the minutiae of the new Great Game, the revived concentration on the "Russia target" as it's put here. Agent Running in the Field has the added complication of launching a salvo against Brexit and Trump - and what a salvo! Le Carré portrays his service as diminished, struggling as old alliances fracture, friends turn hostile and certainties melt. Yet still, the day to day work remains and so we see Nat, the first person protagonist, returning from a shady career under diplomatic cover in various Eastern European capitals, appointed to head the Haven, a forgotten outstation staffed by no-hopers and those who have fallen from grace.

(Yes, I think there are overtones here of Joe Herron's Slough House. Or perhaps Le Carré knows of such a place for real?)

I found Nat's background here perhaps a little anachronistic. He seems, at least in part, to have been running operations out of the glory days of Smiley's Circus - infiltrating agents over the border from the Baltic States, for example, engaging in the kinds of derring-do that seem more post-war that early 21st century. Combined with the fact that Le Carré's voice is, obviously, that of an elderly man, his narration of Nat did keep making me think that his career had been in the 70s or 80s and that he was somehow emerging in the present to deal with unfinished business, much the scenario of Le Carré's last, Legacy of Spies, where there is definitely some elasticity to the timeline.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. There is no unfinished business here. The challenges faced by Nat and his colleagues arise directly from the present and concern the US, Russia and the EU. But Nat and the Office bring to these problems their repertoire of tricks and tradecraft (wonderfully described and acted out: I really enjoy this stuff) as well as loyalties and attitudes from an age before authoritarian populism and malign shadow of Putin (which name Le Carré gives a distinctive pronunciation, 'putter').

It feels like a glorious miniature piece, the stakes less control of the Office and victory over Moscow Centre than the loyalty and even soul of one individual or another. The certainties have melted away, one officer storming out of the Office because 'I don't feel like fucking lying any more' and - when it comes - a real sympathy for the potential defector. I think Le Carré's work has always been about the morality of the game as much as the tricks and traps, but here those questions are open, urgent - Nat visits a former asset and seemingly agrees with him that it had all been for nothing. It is in many ways a depressing picture, but Nat - and Le Carré -  won't give up, but seek to rescue what they can from what seems like impending darkness.

My they, and their counterparts in reality, be successful in that.

This is a wonderful read, a wonderful listen, and I'd recommend it to anyone.

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.


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