John le Carré’s first spy novel appeared in 1961 and nearly 60 years and 25 books later, he’s still at it. Compared to his last novel, Agent Running in the Field is full on modern day spy story. His hero, Nat, is a spy on his way out pulled back in for what is likely his last chance – running a broken down London station titled with typical le Carré flair – “the Haven.”
Nat tells his story in the first person and it lets le Carré play out his story, full of characters giving diatribes and covert surveillance, smoothly and seemingly without effort. While that makes it sound like many other of his novels, he does try a few things that seem to be pushing the envelope for him. It’s possible that he’s had a lead character in a happy marriage with children, but I can’t recall it. In this book they play a minor but important part in the story. As someone who raised children and has been in, from all appearances, a happy marriage himself for several decades the lack of characters with similar characteristics seems a glaring blindspot.It’s nice to see that explored and I only wish he’d gone further.
There are also a couple of nods to pop culture. One is a reference to an actor and functions as a knowing wink to his most well known character, George Smiley. The other is more glaring due to its rarity – rock icon Sting gets a shout out. Again, I’ve racked my brain for past references to rock star or any other types of celebrities but typically le Carré’s books have been notable for their lack of any pop culture mentions, preferring to stick to obscure German poets.
Does this portend le Carré entering his Nick Hornby phase? Will his next book be full of talk of TV shows, rock music and movies with lead character raising a family? Probably not, but it would be interesting to see.
More than anything, this is book which owes its existence to the current political realities of the west. With both the US and the U.K. in seemingly endless turmoil, le Carré doesn’t pull his punches. While in past books he’s walked a fine line between making a point and beating you about the head with his opinion, In this novel, his righteous fury at the state of the world is balanced by 60 years training on how to tell an entertaining story.
By focusing on Nat’s running of a double agent who tips him to a bigger operation the Russians are planning, he gets to build up to a surveillance operation that’s a master class in writing suspense and serves to make all that political medicine go down nice and smooth.
On the whole, this is a stronger book than both A Delicate Truth or A Legacy of Spies. This is a fun spy novel with something to say that shouldn’t need le Carré’s name for it to be worth your time.
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