When John Le Carré died in December at the age of 89, not only did we lose the person who had defined the spy novel genre – and moulded much of our emotional response to the Cold War – but he also spanned the living memory of an entire country.
Any novelist who follows in the footsteps of the person who defined the genre is immediately compared to them and that is about as great an epitaph any writer can receive.
In his last novel, Agent Running in the Field, Le Carré is responding to the political crises of Trump and Brexit. But these remain a backdrop to an essentially classic spy story. Nat is at the end of his career as a field agent. We find him expecting to be put out to grass and about to throw any proposed backroom office job back in the faces of his HR department. Although the man whose world we are about to enter has dedicated his life to the Intelligence Service, he perceives it warts and all.
To his surprise, Nat is given a new mission to take over a semi-forgotten and rundown London outpost and make it relevant. We meet Florence, a young and talented agent, who takes us down the shady corporate espionage route. But that is just a teaser for the main plot that takes us back into Cold War politics and out again into the present political scene. As Nat starts to rebuild the family life he has neglected, a young man enters his social circle. Ed becomes his badminton partner who initially takes the role of a sort of Trump- and Brexit-hating Greek chorus. But that role changes as the story progresses.
Nat’s years of practical field experience enable him to sniff out an operation that catapults him into the heart of a layered plot which only he is able to understand and play-out. Unfortunately, his years of experience do not prevent him from becoming an unwitting piece in the puzzle: when Ed suddenly enters into the operation and becomes central to its resolution, leading to the ultimate act of defiance which ends Nat’s career with a joyous bang rather than a whimper.
Le Carré’s last book takes you from the wide sweep of the present political landscape through the psychological inscape of his characters into the intricate world of spycraft with the deftness that only a great writer can achieve. If you want an engrossing page-turner, with a likeable protagonist, insights into the shadier side of corporate life and SME traditional trade-craft spying, this book will not disappoint.