Le Carré’s 25th novel is a fine piece of storytelling. It is a neat, compact, slow-burning tale with just the right amount of twisting and turning and misdirection. For Le Carré fans, it has the world-weary atmosphere that make his thrillers so evocative, brought to life in the odd telling detail, such as the SIS bureaucracy refusing to expense an “unnecessary” taxi ride in Prague.
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 his exploration of corruption in the City of London and the money being pumped into it from Putin’s Moscow. At the age of eighty-eight, the author has lost little of his gift for creating Big Brother atmospherics and pages of taut dialogue.
In le Carré at his best, a zero-sum nihilism prevails. A traitor may be unmasked, as in the final pages of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but by then we are so deeply mired in betrayal that his motives seem indistinguishable from anyone else’s. In the end, as honour and ideology hang in tatters, the defence of the realm depends not on true believers but on those whose illusions have deserted them. All of this seems worth rehearsing in the light of a new novel that seems, for the 88-year-old le Carré, to attempt a final reckoning with the fastidious equivocation that has defined his career.
Agent Running in the Field — an intentionally ambiguous title, no doubt — is le Carré’s 25th novel. The first and most important thing to say is that it’s a cracker. There was a whiff of weariness about his previous book, A Legacy of Spies, but here he writes as a man refreshed. Perhaps it’s an unexpected Brexit dividend... Many of Le Carré’s novels explore the nature of loyalty, but here he gives it a different twist. The result is a rich, beautifully written book studded with surprises. Narrative is a black art, and Le Carré is its grandmaster.
This is Le Carré’s 26th novel and, of course, it has long been obvious that it is absurd to regard him as a genre novelist. He is indeed more serious than many much admired literary novelists, as well as being more entertaining... Le Carré has always been such a writer. Well on in his ninth decade, his intellectual and emotional energy is undiminished... It is natural now that his masterpieces are behind him, but this is a very good, engaging and enjoyable novel, his best, I should say, since A Most Wanted Man.
Ever since he was propelled into spy fiction by the cold war division of Europe, and the astonishing success of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, le Carré’s de facto muse has been the zeitgeist. Remarkably, more than 50 years on, this source of inspiration has not deserted him with Agent Running in the Field. Like its bestselling predecessor, A Legacy of Spies, this new book demands the tribute of a rereading as much as a reading... Le Carré delivers a tale for our times, replete with the classic seasoning of betrayal, secret state shenanigans and sad-eyed human frailty, all baked into an oven-hot contemporary thriller that’s partly inspired by the machinations of 21st-century Ukraine, today more than ever the fatal crossroads of great power politics.
Before the book’s release, its publisher promised that it would “confront the division and rage at the heart of our modern world”. Instead the book exacerbates it. Agent Running in the Field is in part an undisguised Remainer screed, an anguished howl of Hampstead (where le Carré has a house) angst and fury. Le Carré uses Ed to deliver chunks of clunky, didactic dialogue... Le Carré is rightly acclaimed as one of our finest novelists. His cold war series, featuring the spymaster George Smiley, is also a subtle, engrossing chronicle of postwar Britain and its diminishing international role. But in the canon of a great writer, Agent Running in the Field is a minor work.
At 288 pages, Agent Running in the Field is a miniature compared with le Carré’s great cold war novels, and it lacks the ruthless clockwork precision of, say, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But it is a very classy entertainment about political ideals and deception. There is a terrific scene set in a park, in particular, in which we gradually realise that all the bystanders are part of a huge team of “watchers” marshalled by the spies to observe a secret conversation. The author leaves the reader to draw the disturbing inference that this – in the age of ambient corporate and state surveillance by ubiquitous technology – is simply the way we all live now.
Now in his late 80s, le Carre demonstrates once again his sublime elegance as a writer, and his delicate touch when portraying human failings in the shadowy world of espionage. Nat is the child of an impecunious major in the Scots Guards and an insignificant member of Russian nobility...He is a perfect, nuanced le Carre character: world-weary, yet still with a glint in his eye.... Subtle, wry and seamless, it’s an utter joy, from first page to last.
Agent Running in the Field is as ingeniously structured as any of le Carré’s fiction, skilfully misdirecting the reader for much of the time. True, the language, though charming and fluent, feels like a burnished antique, never that of man in his forties now, belonging rather to an earlier era.
As always, there’s considerable genre-suitable sentimentality, about the young, about women, especially. But then le Carré has developed into an immensely stylised writer, the creator of his own fictional world. At this point in his career, we can only be grateful for another chance to join him there.
There is nothing so mimsily oblique about [Le Carre's] new novel, thankfully, which tackles Brexit head-on and, unlike [A legacy of Spies], is set during a specific, identifiable period: the run-up to President Trump’s first visit to the UK, in 2018... As always, it is a sheer pleasure to read le Carré’s muscular prose. Few writers are so well able to convey strength and self-belief, with the result that the reader is forced to accept everything he says, sometimes against one’s better judgment... What’s most remarkable is the way in which le Carré can still produce set-pieces of a type that he more or less invented 50 years ago and, at the age of 87, do them better than his scores of imitators.
But once le Carré’s game is in full swing, he is close to unbeatable. Agent Running in the Field is a perfectly tight thriller, somehow managing to strip everything back to the essential plot without its direction ever becoming predictable. And though the prose is sometimes sacrificed to pace, there are frequent reminders of le Carré’s deft ability to conjure atmosphere from fleeting description: a hushed dawn in Primrose Hill, for example, where a church bell tolls, “but only timidly”.