Le Carré cashes in rivetingly on resumption of Cold War

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

Agent Running in the Field, by John le Carré (Penguin Random House UK)

Moscow Centre is up and running again, its tentacles stronger and more malicious than ever. Its agent are all over London. It has a US president in its boss’s pocket, has begun to break up a European market alliance and even undermine its greatest enemy, Nato. All the hard work done by George Smiley to turn Moscow Centre’s mastermind Karla and foreshadow the end of communism has been undone in only a few years. No wonder John le Carré is in his element.

Our greatest spy novelist never quire reached the heights of the Karla trilogy once the Cold War ended. With Agent Running in the Field, he might be touching them again. 

Except that Moscow Centre, back to its old brutal efficiency, is less of the story than Le Carré’s usual theme of betrayal, which I hope is not giving too much away in a story that is riveting from beginning to end.

The hero of the book is Nat, an MI6 veteran who once ran agents into the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. At the age of 47, he has been brought home, much to the delight of his long-suffering wife Prue, a human rights lawyer, and their difficult daughter, Steff. He is put in charge of a service outstation, the Haven (shades of Mick Heron and Slough House here, though not quite as outcast).

It’s at the Haven he comes across a secret service probationer, Florence, who is a natural in Nat’s trade. She’s full of promise, ideas and strong feelings about today’s world where the enemy lines are opaque. She’s also too much for the higher-ups of the service, one of whom, an idiot by the name of Trench, is Nat’s bête noire. “The man’s fucked up everything he’s touched in his life, so he’ll be in great demand,” Nat’s mentor and high priest of MI6 tells our hero. 

There is much of this type of office politics, only more sinister and dangerous than what happens in your usual office.

Into this mix Ed Shannon arrives. A gauche badminton player of some talent, Ed challenges Nat, the club champion. It’s Le Carré’s brilliant way of introducing a key character. For Ed, Brexit is a clusterfuck, a word that Nat, in his absence from Britain is unfamiliar with but finds accurate. Nat hides his politics, but does give away that he’s working for a “pig-ignorant foreign secretary”, who, since the book was written, has become prime minister.

Le Carré has long loathed the Americans and you would think that the current state the world, with Trump, Brexit and rising nationalisms, they would become the focus of his anger. But he is too clever a writer to let his emotions overwhelm his writing. He is very much in control of his story and his millions of fans will be pleased that, even at 88, the great spymaster has not lost his touch.




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