#BookReview Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré

Agent Running in the FieldAbout the Book

Nat, a 47 year-old veteran of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, believes his years as an agent runner are over. He is back in London with his wife, the long-suffering Prue. But with the growing threat from Moscow Centre, the office has one more job for him. Nat is to take over The Haven, a defunct substation of London General with a rag-tag band of spies. The only bright light on the team is young Florence, who has her eye on Russia Department and a Ukrainian oligarch with a finger in the Russia pie.

Nat is not only a spy, he is a passionate badminton player. His regular Monday evening opponent is half his age: the introspective and solitary Ed. Ed hates Brexit, hates Trump and hates his job at some soulless media agency. And it is Ed, of all unlikely people, who will take Prue, Florence and Nat himself down the path of political anger that will ensnare them all.

Format: Paperback (384 pages)        Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 20th August 2020 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Thriller, Espionage

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My Review

The author’s decision to include a character with such fervently anti-Brexit and anti-Trump views as Ed Shannon is likely to divide opinion, especially as one suspects they are the barely disguised views of the author himself. But at least Ed’s views are clear and firmly held, or so Nat believes. This is in contrast to the self-serving attitude of many of Nat’s colleagues, who seem more interested in climbing the next rung on the career ladder or securing a lucrative pension. This includes his odious boss, Dominic (the choice of name, replicating that of the Prime Minister’s former chief advisor, is surely no coincidence). Only Nat’s young colleague, Florence, seems driven by her moral convictions.

Although he doesn’t know it at the time, his meeting with Ed will give Nat the opportunity to do what he does best. As he says himself, he’s ‘a field man, not a desk jockey’. Nat definitely isn’t prepared to take a back seat, unless that’s in the rear of a laundry van filled with high-tech surveillence equipment.

Though the book doesn’t quite have the atmosphere of the author’s Cold War thrillers such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold or A Small Town in Germany (two of my personal favourites), there are scenes which come close. For example, the episode in which Nat travels to Prague to meet former agent, Arkady, or the tense scene in the Control Room as a complex surveillance operation gets underway.

The book contains the “tradecraft” that le Carré fans have come to expect – dead letter drops, encoded messages using one-time pads, abort/go signals for meetings, and invisible writing concealed in seemingly innocuous correspondence. And the job of an agent or handler being what it is, a cover story may be needed even for a game of badminton. However, this being the age of oversight and budgets, the book also demonstrates the often lengthy process of gaining financial and operational approval for surveillance and other covert operations from the various gatekeepers in the Service.

I liked the fact that in this book the author gives the reader a glimpse into Nat’s family life and the strain of having to keep so much about his work secret. For instance, Nat’s struggle to maintain his relationship with his idealistic daughter Steff demonstrates the difficulty of fulfilling the role of caring father whilst at the same time concealing the true nature of his work. Nat’s wife Prue, a human rights lawyer, knows more about Nat’s real role than anyone else but even so still needs to call on her seemingly infinite supply of patience when yet another late night telephone call calls Nat away. And, as Nat acknowledges, when he finds himself into trouble it’s Prue’s resourcefulness that comes to the rescue. ‘At which juncture Prue does what Prue always does, just when I think she has finally run out of patience with me: steps back, takes a second reading of the situation and sets about fixing it.’

The book’s satisfyingly intricate plot encompasses everything from Ukranian oligarchs, double agents and the fallout from Brexit to Anglo-American relations in the age of Donald Trump. There were a few literary tics that grated such as Nat’s repeated use of the term chers collègues when referring to the other employees of the Haven (pretentious, moi?). However, overall I enjoyed my return to the world of espionage conjured up by John le Carré.

Agent Running in the Field is one of the books selected for the current series of the BBC2 programme Between The Covers, the nearest many of us can get to participating in a book club at the moment.

In three words: Assured, suspenseful, detailed

Try something similar: A Legacy of Spies by John le Carre

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John le CarreAbout the Author

John le Carré was born in 1931. For six decades, he wrote novels that came to define our age. The son of a confidence trickster, he spent his childhood between boarding school and the London underworld. At sixteen he found refuge at the university of Bern, then later at Oxford. A spell of teaching at Eton led him to a short career in British Intelligence (MI5&6).

He published his debut novel, Call for the Dead, in 1961 while still a secret servant. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, secured him a worldwide reputation, which was consolidated by the acclaim for his trilogy Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. At the end of the Cold War, le Carré widened his scope to explore an international landscape including the arms trade and the War on Terror. His memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, was published in 2016 and the last George Smiley novel, A Legacy of Spies, appeared in 2017.

He died on 12 December 2020. (Bio credit: Publisher author page/Photo credit: Goodreads)

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