Let’s give an enthusiastic toast to John le Carre. The dean of Anglo-American spy fiction just turned 88, and he’s still going strong. Here’s the writer who, beginning with “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” in 1963, transformed a pop genre into an art form. So it came as no surprise when his “A Perfect Spy” (1986) was declared one of the best British novels of the second half of the 20th century by no less than Philip Roth.
Le Carre rose to fame as a sharp-eyed observer of the Cold War who could perceive moral nuance on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But he later branched out to take in such subjects as the Israel-Palestine conflict, Big Pharma, unrestrained capitalism and American misadventures abroad.
In his latest novel, “Agent Running in the Field,” le Carre returns to familiar territory. His narrator hero Nat — named Arkady at birth by his expatriate Russian mother and Scottish father — is a 46-year old agent runner for MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA. He’s done well supervising spies in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but now, in the age of Putin, he’s been called back to a fairly humble post in London.
Nat begins his story at the London badminton club where he reigns as singles champion. A 20-something newcomer challenges him to a match, which becomes a weekly event followed by a pint. Ed is clearly a work-in-progress — socially awkward, opinionated and very much a mystery man. Like Nat, he believes Brexit, Trump and Putin are symptoms of a world gone mad. Eventually, Nat will be forced to explain this odd-couple relationship.
At the office, Nat oversees Operation Rosebud, a potential eavesdropping at the local mansion of a Ukrainian billionaire with ties to the Kremlin. His young second-in-command, the smart and idealistic Florence, suspects that there are bigger fish — traitorous Brits, in fact, primed to be hooked.
In le Carre’s fiction, office politics are almost as nasty as relations between nations. So Nat has to battle on several fronts. His superiors want to stifle Rosebud, his immediate boss is notorious for back-stabbing his underlings, and Florence hasn’t yet learned how to kowtow.
Meanwhile, Nat is keeping an eye on Sergei, a Russian student at York University turned into a sleeper agent for the MI6, who has reported disturbing contacts from a woman, whose profile Nat recognizes as that of a high-level Moscow operative. This news will lead him to several other shadowy figures from his past, and the potential implications will make him despair for the future of British democracy.
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At home, the stakes are no less troubling. Nat’s wife, Prue, a human-rights lawyer, has put up for years with his frequent absences and wonders how much her own spouse has flouted human rights. Their teenage daughter, Steff, kept in the dark, belittles her father for not advancing further in his “diplomatic career.”
As usual, “Agent Running in the Field” is a model of supple, muscular prose. Le Carre’s sharply etched characters spring to life. One of them “had lived out his cover as Cultural Attache with such brio, lecturing his bemused Russian audiences on so many erudite topics that they were half way to believing that he was a straight diplomat. Cover, dear boy. Next to Godliness.”
The book’s pacing is swift, the dialogue rings true, the plot twists are bracing and unexpected. The le Carre magic is apparent everywhere — until the very end.
The conclusion is not only a huge surprise but positively unfathomable, and not quite earned.