Publisher: Viking Books
Released: October 17, 2019
Nat, a 47 year-old veteran of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, believes his years as an agent runner are over. He is back in London with his wife, the long-suffering Prue. But with the growing threat from Moscow Centre, the office has one more job for him. Nat is to take over The Haven, a defunct substation of London General with a rag-tag band of spies. The only bright light on the team is young Florence, who has her eye on Russia Department and a Ukrainian oligarch with a finger in the Russia pie.
Nat is not only a spy, he is a passionate badminton player. His regular Monday evening opponent is half his age: the introspective and solitary Ed. Ed hates Brexit, hates Trump and hates his job at some soulless media agency. And it is Ed, of all unlikely people, who will take Prue, Florence and Nat himself down the path of political anger that will ensnare them all.
As with the only other John le Carré-book I’ve got around to reading (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) I wish that I would have liked this book just a little more than I did. It’s undeniably excellent, and extremely clever, but, as with Tinker, Tailor, it’s written in quite an unforgiving way that doesn’t bother too much about pulling you in. You just have to be there and come along for the ride.
Agent Running in the Field presents a picture of how covert operations work that’s so ridiculous and overdone that it feels too silly to be made up. Part of this absurd realism (actually, pretty instrumental to it) is that, for most of the book, nothing really happens. We follow the main character, Nat, in his life, which includes playing badminton and working for the UK governments secret services. One day he gets a new, remarkable, young, badminton partner, who has some strong opinions on world affairs. For most of the book not much happens, and the not much takes a long time not happening. Then everything happens pretty much at the same time, and then the book has ended.
At the time it didn’t feel satisfying, but I’m writing this a few days after finishing the book, and, even though it’s an old cliché, this is definitely a book that’s been coming back to me. I keep drifting off and thinking about the earlier parts of the book, and whether they can be seen in a new light knowing what I know from the end. Whether that actually is the case, I don’t know, but the book has definitely had a greater impact on me than other books that I’ve technically liked more.
The book is written as a report on what happened, rather than as an in-the-moment telling of events. The main character recounts the story in a sterile and emotionless way. Interestingly, when the story is told without emotion sentences like “I was angry” are all the more impactful, so while the story as a whole has a deliberately dry tone, the emotion of some scenes hits you quite hard despite there being no emotion in the language itself.
There is also some interesting meta-political commentary in the book, which I read as touching upon how many of us have become a little too lazy with our political complaints and opinions. It’s easy to denounce the politicians we see as villains, and we spend quite a lot of time speaking to other people who see them as villains about exactly how villainous they are. I’ll probably need a re-read of the book with this in mind to properly line up my thoughts on what the book is actually saying about this, but, suffice to say, some parts of the book made me, if not question, at least check the way in which I think about and express my opinion on world politics.
About ten percent into this book I flippantly described it to someone as “Like James Bond, but without the action, peril, sexism, racism, and mostly about badminton.” Having finished the book I still feel like that’s not too far off the mark for the book as a whole, except that this book somehow makes nothing happening feel thrilling and perilous enough that I wanted to keep on reading. I think this book could have held its own even if the main plot-points were taken away from it, which is saying a lot. And once the plot, and the conclusion, comes into play, the rest of the book doesn’t exactly start making sense, but it feels like the way things played out (or didn’t) was more inevitable than I thought when I first read it.
Agent Running in the Field is definitely a book like few others, and while it will probably be awhile until I pick up another John le Carré book, I’m curious whether the style, and the “dry” spy craft of these books will start growing on me more. I hope it does.