John le Carre's Agent Running in the Field cover


There’s something about books written by masters of their craft towards the end of their careers.

It’s a kind of poise, an ease, that you can see in (say) Philip Roth’s late books. (Which isn’t to say that it must be any easier to write).

You can see that late-style poise in John le Carré’s 25th (and now final) novel, Agent Running in the Field. But is it actually any good?

Coming in after the Cold War

On publication, Le Carré, then 88 years old, hinted that Agent Running might be his last book and it has a certain elegiac tone.

Nevertheless, having revolutionised the spy thriller in 1963 with his third, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, you could argue he had every right to consider taking a rest.

That novel drove a T62 tank through the gentlemanly action spy thriller and dragged it into the grime of the Cold War, making le Carré’s name in the process.

His subsequent George Smiley novels – most famously Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – drove his reputation even higher, with the help of TV and film adaptations; though it has become de rigueur for reviewers to suggest that the end of the Cold War robbed him of his favourite subject and that he had been working at less than full power ever since.

But this is far too simplistic a view.

In fact, novels such as The Night Manager and The Constant Gardener allowed him to explore the dramatic shifts in society that followed – and the new dangers that arose – since the fall of the Berlin Wall was supposed to end all history.

And shortly after publication of Agent Running in the Field, le Carré (real name David Cornwell) won the prestigious Olof Palme prize for “constantly urging us to discuss the cynical power games of the major powers, the greed of global corporations… and the alarming rise of fascism and xenophobia in Europe and the US.”

Agent Running in the Field

In Agent Running, though, we do feel as if we might be going back to his roots.

We meet Nat, a spy who at 47 expects to be told to rip up his false passports and that his days running agents are finished. However, to his surprise, his boss gives him charge of a defunct substation in London, with a ragbag staff.

With echoes of le Carré’s earlier novels, Putin’s Russia has become a threat once more and there are more than a few resonances with the old days of the Soviets as Nat starts to suspect that something nasty is afoot.

Today we have oligarchs, rather than Commissars, along with Trump and Brexit, but the fog of deception and double-dealing remains just as strong.

Quiet humour

As ever, le Carré is an acute observer of character. It’s rightly said you can judge a film by the quality of its supporting cast, and the same applies here.

Supporting Nat, we find a well-drawn cast that includes his laid-back but devious boss Dom, his fiery assistant Florence and his Trump-hating young badminton partner, Ed.

Nat’s long-suffering wife, Prue, could easily have become a cliché, but instead grows into a clear-sighted pen-portrait of a very typical kind of “army” wife. The kind I’ve seen in real life, keeping a home fire burning for her absentee husband with surface calm and tired resignation.

Nat’s substation, the Haven, has more than a few echoes, too, of Mick Herron’s odd-ball spook station Slough House. And this allows le Carré to bring in some rare, if quiet, humour.

He also has fun with modern politics. “NO BREXIT TALK ALOUD” is stuck behind the bar at his badminton club; and the author allows Ed to voice strong opinions that seem particularly close to his own.

Going quietly into that dark night?

But none of this gets in the way of a plot which unfolds with masterful ease (that word again). Step by step, he draws us into the web of spy-work, with its anxieties, dangers and self-doubts.

In the past, le Carré novels have usually ended with a strong emotional punch – one that sometimes takes us by surprise. Even the less famous books have often been able to side-swipe the reader in this way.

Here, the book certainly builds to a strong climax, which ties all the strands together in a surprising way, but leaves us with a gentler, slightly more enigmatic ending.

Is Nat standing in for le Carré himself, the old hand preparing himself for retirement. Was he already planning on going quietly into that dark night?

Perhaps. But when I spoke to him a few weeks before his death, he said he was working on another.

Maybe we’ll get a chance to see that too one day.

Further reading

Agent Running in the Field

Le Carré interview – Truth was what you got away with

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