John le Carré’s twenty-fifth novel, Agent Running in the Field, reflects on the threadbareness of post-imperial Britain and the “mirage” of the country’s importance on the world stage. Like the alienated British agent Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the middle-aged Nat (né Anatoly) is a British government spook adrift in a world of double-dealing and intrigue. Of dual English-Russian heritage, he has served in M16 for a quarter of a century, “in Moscow, Prague, Bucharest, Tbilsi, Trieste, Helsinki and more recently Tallinn, recruiting and running agents” under diplomatic cover. His devotion to Crown and country has made him a “de facto absentee husband and father”, to his English wife Prue, a human rights lawyer, and his disgruntled teenage daughter Steff. However, he is now back home in London and seeks to make amends to them.


The novel, narrated by Nat, unfolds in the run-up to President Trump’s first visit to the UK in July 2018. Approaching 50, Nat expects to be made redundant and replaced by an eager millennial on a fraction of his salary; instead he is put out to pasture at The Haven, a dilapidated Intelligence substation located in north London. Nat’s brief there is to monitor the activities of “service misfits”, among them defectors, informants and other low-grade types involved usually in “Russian double-double games”.


One evening at his sports club in Battersea, near his home in south-west London, Nat is challenged to a game of badminton by an opinionated, gawky new member called Edward Stanley Shannon, who is a self-styled “researcher” born to a Methodist family in the North. After a few matches they become friends. At the club bar each week they enjoy post-badminton drinks, while the 25-year-old Edward indulges virulent diatribes against Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. If we are not careful, Ed pontificates, a new Benzino Napaloni (the Mussolini-like buffoon of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) might spark off World War Three. Not since the Second World War has “fascism” posed such a threat to freedom; Putin’s oft-vented scorn for democracy has served to strengthen the hand of dictators everywhere.


While Nat may privately agree about the “sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit” (as le Carré himself certainly does), he is careful not to let it show and listens indulgently while Ed angrily brands Boris Johnson “an Etonian narcissist elitist” (le Carré, incidentally, taught at Eton College for two years in the mid-1950s) and Britain’s likely departure from the European Union “an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none”. Ed’s gamey language and litheness on the badminton court endear him to Nat, who sees in him the son he never had; most important, Ed is a “good European”.



Or is he? When an operative at The Haven exposes Ed as a possible pro-Putin spy, Nat is staggered. Can this paragon of anti-totalitarian politics be intent on betraying his country? Nat, a decent man, has been suckered into the dishonesties attendant on matters of “Deep State”, where non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce have access to classified information denied to sectors of Whitehall and Westminster. As Nat sets out to fathom the nature of Ed’s betrayal, he encounters agents from his past; in one superbly-rendered scene he travels to the Czech Republic in order to meet the splendidly dyspeptic Arkady (alias Woodpecker), the one-time head of Moscow’s rezidentura in Trieste. Nat’s operation is so hush-hush that even his wife Prue is kept in ignorance (though she is not unaware of her husband’s status as a “secret” civil servant).


When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, le Carré was apparently left without a clear subject: the USSR had evaporated, and with it the Cold War antagonisms that informed his spy fiction. Nevertheless he kept a hawk-eye on the new Russian oligarchs and their connections with private arms contractors and international fraudsters of one stripe or another. A bravura performance, Agent Running in The Field continues le Carré’s exploration of corruption within the City of London and the money pumped into it from Putin’s Moscow. At the age of 88, le Carré has lost little of his gift for creating Big Brother atmospherics and pages of taut dialogue.


This review appeared in The Times Literary Supplement in November 2019

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