Writers approaching their ninth decade surely shouldn’t still be this accomplished, should they? Yet here we have John le Carré’s twenty-fifth novel, Agent Running in the Field (2019), and it’s another gripping success that holds it own in the author’s canon. As he has frequently done throughout his career, le Carré tailors the subject matter to the politics of the era — and oh, what a time he has to contend with now.
Our first-person narrator is Nat, a career intelligence officer nearing fifty who returns to London from his final overseas posting, convinced his career as an agent-running spy is over. Nat is prepared to move on to a new phase in life, repairing his marriage with long-suffering wife Prue, a former spy herself who left the world of spies to become a high-powered lawyer. But there’s a surprise or two still in store for Nat. One is an unexpected new position running a long-neglected spy station in London, where he can put his agent-running prowess to work, this time on home soil. Another is an odd new friend he meets at his local club, a fellow badminton enthusiast named Ed, a disgruntled idealist whose hatred of Brexit and Trump occasionally bubbles over and forces Nat to confront his long-time service to countries and institutions rapidly careening toward the wrong side of history. Nat’s personal and professional lives are about to collide unexpectedly, forcing him to make a fateful decision: whether to side with his nation, or with his conscience.
Agent Running in the Field wrestles with the geopolitical mess of the past five years with a subtle mix of anger, humor, and reflection. It’s odd to to see Trump and “Moscow Centre” mentioned in the same work, a jarring collision of our bleak reality with le Carré’s epic fictional world-building, but it’s handled adroitly, with the right balance of realism and artistic license. Does the plot hinge too much on unlikely coincidence? Perhaps, but this structural neatness is in service to a coherent and incisive theme. The novel unfolds briskly, the protagonist’s sense of duty challenged by a professional life newly warped by Russian meddling, Brexit, and the rise of American authoritarianism. By leaning into these fraught current events, le Carré has ricocheted away from the engrossing nostalgia of A Legacy of Spies to the place he has always, ultimately, returned: timely, contemporary relevance.