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Monday, November 4, 2019

Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré

Viking, 288 pages, $29

John le Carré began his auspicious writing career with “Call for the Dead,” in 1961. It starred George Smiley in the first of what was to become a long and honored series about the Cold War. In 1963, he released “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” and in 1965, “The Looking Glass War,” two of his most popular novels. His books were erudite, articulate, readable, slyly humorous, authoritatively complex yet apprehensible, and the sine qua non of appreciating spy fiction. John le Carré, or David Cornwell as he was born, lived in the world of spy and counter-spy in real life. Although le Carré is now 88 years old, his works still illuminate, while ushering out the old order and bemusedly watching the younger generation work to build their own ideas of empire and republic.

Although this is 2019, three years after the surprising election of Donald Trump and the equally surprising Brexit vote in Britain, fictional works with references to these events and their effect are only now beginning to rapidly pile up in the book world. The non-fiction world was way ahead in that sense. “Agent Running in the Field” places the story squarely into post-Trump and Brexit chaos. Both forces affect the old alliances, and no treaty or promise is worth the paper it’s printed on.

Nat is a twenty-five year veteran of service in MI6. He is about to be put to pasture, by his own estimation. Instead, he is given the management of The Haven, a London substation of agents who don’t fit anywhere else. (See Mick Herron’s terrific “Slow Horses” series about the same topic.) Although nothing significant is expected to come out of the department, one of its brighter lights, young Florence, just may have a lead to uncovering a trail of nefarious financial misdeeds to the Russians through a London-based oligarch.

As Nat is trying to wrap his head around his latest assignment and what it might mean for his future — agents always have to see past the obvious — he meets a young man about twenty-five years his junior, at his athletic club. Ed appears to be serious about challenging Nat’s supremacy at club badminton. Nat is proud of having beaten most comers, including much younger men. Ed gives Nat a run for his money, and a strange and tentative acquaintanceship, perhaps friendship, develops between the two.

This is where I get cagey because everything that develops from this point on is hush-hush, and you must have the proper clearance. I will give you le Carré’s opening lines, however:

Our meeting was not contrived. Not by me, not by Ed, not by any of the hidden hands supposedly pulling at his strings. I was not targeted. Ed was not put up to it. We were neither covertly nor aggressively observed….There was no contrivance, no conspiracy, no collusion.

That pretty much tells you that Nat and Ed will headline a book touching on Nat's world. If I may interject a telling remark here: It is difficult in this day and age to gauge the accuracy and meaning of accusations thrown about these days: “treason,” “leader,” “nationalism.” Definitions may need re-defining. The world has certainly been turned on its head. With this in mind, read le Carré’s relatively short novel. It is not so much about the political thunderstorms, but about how real people are buffeted about in them. It is about survival and personal belief. It is not le Carré’s deepest or most complex novel, but it is one of his most sincere.

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