Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer
AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD. By John le Carre. Viking. 281 pages. $29.
He’s 88, he’s written 25 books, and along the way he’s picked up a few tricks in more than one trade. Espionage is one of them. To stay at the top of the thriller game, Le Carre has had to keep up with developments in the spy game. In his latest book, he documents how the mighty British machine, fueled by the force of a glorious past, has deteriorated into a dilapidated jalopy running on the fumes left by Brexit. Bottled water is banned in meetings, and the narrator is chastised for taking a taxi on assignment — a bus was available.
That narrator, Nat, is an aging pseudodiplomat who recruited, trained and ran agents in the field. A little long in the tooth, 20 years in the service, he expects to be put out to pasture. Instead, he is given a neglected “station” in London itself to bring up to par.
A charming fellow, both in print and person, Nat loves his badminton. In his sports club, he takes up a weekly game and post-game beer with a fellow named Ed. Ed is a mouthpiece for some excoriating views of Donald Trump and Brexit: “…Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the U.S. is headed straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterf%@k bar none.” Shortly after their first meeting, Nat announces that Ed led him down a path of disaster. Le Carre doesn’t foreshadow that disaster; he announces it. That’s when he flashes his brilliance at another trade — writing. He tells us what is going to happen, and then keeps us engaged the rest of the book with how it happens.
It’s a recounting, a reconstruction of the details that leads to a finale as taut with suspense and subterfuge as any le Carre has committed to paper before. Nat, as the reader does, gets wrapped up in the details. He doesn’t see the answer to the dilemma until “… at some point after a day of waiting, an answer of sorts came to me. Not as a blinding revelation, but on tiptoe, like a latecomer to the theatre, edging his way down the row in the half-dark.” The reveal of that solution and the path to the finale proceeds in the same manner, as the reader edges along with Nat.
Britain may have lost its edge, but le Carre has not lost his. He’s a good writer, Nat is a good man, and this is a good book.