James Bond is everyone’s favorite manifestation of a British spy, a status that requires acceptance of the premise that an intelligence operative can use his real name and be not only obvious but flamboyant.
For 55 years, John LeCarre has offered truer insight into the intelligence world by immersing readers in the deceit, moral ambiguity, and nuance at the heart of the enterprise. His 26th novel, “Agent Running in the Field,” is true to that standard.
Nat, 47, has returned to London after a career as an agent runner in Eastern Europe — a role in which he convinces people to betray their countries and supervises them in the execution of it, often at their extreme peril. He also returns, full-time, to his accomplished but spy-weary wife, Prudence, a high-powered human rights lawyer in the midst of a massive and likely successful class action against “Big Pharma.” Nat also is weary and plans to find work in the private sector but is summoned by his superiors, including some “friends,” for one last task. He is to rehabilitate the Haven, a one-time vital branch of London General that deteriorated after the Cold War into an island of misfit toys, a collection of has-beens and wannabes with no particular direction. But with the resurrection of Moscow Centre’s London operation in the age of Vladimir Putin, the Haven has new purpose.
LeCarre conveys his characters’ Britishness not with Astin Martins and Union Jacks, but with deeply ingrained aspects of British culture. So it is that, in addition to intelligence operations, Nat’s passion is badminton. He is the club champion at Athleticus, a sort-of exclusive and somewhat rundown club where he first meets Ed, a friendless, introspective loner half his age who seeks out Nat and challenges him. Ed, who apparently is a disaffected employee of a media company, reveals his dismay at the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, the resurgence of totalitarianism under Vladimir Putin in Russia and what he finds to be the bewildering election of Donald Trump in the United States.
At the Haven, Ed directs Florence, an ambitious rookie who rebels when higher-ups reject her plan to take down a Ukrainian oligarch who has set up shop in London.
From there ensues a collision of characters and events in the LeCarre mold: Are these people, including Nat, who they purport to be?
In the classic LeCarre style, no descriptive detail of person or place is wasted. Each has its role in the puzzle. And, as always in a LeCarre work, the obvious never really is so, and the eye of the intelligence professional truly is sharper than that of the typical observer.
Since it is difficult in many LeCarre novels to identify the good guy, if there truly is one, there is no way to tell if the good guy won. But that, in itself, is part of the game, and why it never ends.
- Publisher: Viking
- Pages: 281
- Price: $29
Patrick McKenna has been associate editor of The Times-Tribune since July 1990. He is a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, a role in which he helps to formulate editorial policy. As editorial and op-ed editor, he is responsible for most of The Times-Tribune’s opinion content and the author of most of the newspaper’s editorials. A 1978 graduate of Penn State, Pat started at The Scranton Times in March 1978. He has won multiple statewide awards for editorial writing, and the national WIlliam Allen White Award for Editorial Excellence. Pat is a Scranton native and lives in Clarks Green.