Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
John le Carré’s latest novel, Agent Running in the Field, realistically and informatively describes spy tradecraft like only an experienced insider can. [During the 1950s and 1960s, le Carré worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).] Nat, the narrator and protagonist, is a middle age British spy who believes he is about to be declared “redundant” by his employer, the British Secret Service. Although he is probably in his late 40s, he is very fit; in fact, he is the champion badminton player at the tony Athleticus Club. But he is rather old for an active agent, and more importantly, doesn’t take well to authority. The Secret Service does not fire Nat, but it gives him a rather dead-end assignment reporting to a man he detests.
One day, a young American named Ed comes into Nat’s fancy club and challenges him to a badminton match. The two are pretty evenly matched, and after some time, Nat and Ed become fast friends, usually sharing a pint or two after each match. Ed is very vocal about his politics: he thinks Brexit is a disaster for Britain and he hates Trump. One can almost, but not quite, hear the author opining through Ed. Nat is very reserved about expressing his opinions and never discloses his profession – after all, he is a spy. Ed’s affection for Nat becomes so intense that he eventually asks Nat to be the best man at his wedding.
Things get very complicated when Nat’s unit discovers a Russian agent is actively attempting to recruit a British resident to disclose the details of a very secret [so secret that Nat is not even informed of its nature] project involving the U.K. and the U.S.A. Complications proliferate when Nat discovers that the Russians’ target is none other than his friend Ed. The British spy service then tasks Nat with the job of turning Ed into a double agent.
This in fact has been Nat’s specialty over his career: “agent running” – that is, cultivating a source to work for the British Secret Service. It is a long game, requiring patience and a willingness to privilege strategy and tactics over relationships, much like badminton.
Le Carré describes Ed as very moral, but quite naive, and Nat sees him in just that light. Nat knows that Ed’s motives are pure even if his actions may run counter to British interests. Nat is conflicted between his professional duty and personal friendship. Ed is facing substantial prison time if he does not agree to work with the British. His only way of avoiding the Hobson’s choice of prison or double agency is to leave the country, a difficult if not impossible task now that the British have an eye on him.
At this point, Le Carré’s (and Nat’s) knowledge of spy tradecraft takes over and provides a satisfying if not thoroughly happy denouement.
The story is somewhat more complicated than I can do justice to in a short review. Le Carré’s prose is limpid; he is able to carry the action along largely by dialog.
Evaluation: Le Carré may be 88, but he hasn’t lost his touch. I was thoroughly engrossed in this story.
Published in hardcover by Viking, 2019
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
I listened to an audio book read by the author, who could have been a professional reader. His voice is always clear, and he does a superb job of changing voices and accents to fit the putative speaker.
Published unabridged on 8 CDs (approximately 9 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2019