Agent Running in the Field

John Le Carre

Penguin, £20

IT is appropriate that the master of spy novels has pulled off the most enduring of deceptions. John Le Carre has been described as the most convincing, eloquent and successful espionage writer of his age, perhaps any age.

His most cunning twist, of course, is that he is not a spy writer at all. Indeed, the spy element of his novels has long become merely a scaffolding of dead letter boxers, codes and ‘tradecraft’ that allows something more substantial to be built.

Le Carre is one of the finest English authors of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and that assertion rests not just on his fluent, elegant prose but also his themes. Le Carre, in short, specialises in class, betrayal and shame.

This trio of strong elements were starkly evident in his first novel, A Call to the Dead, in 1961, and have been constants in the more than half century since. They are undisguised and obvious in a Murder of Quality, published in 1963, which has his faithful servant George Smiley at the helm but eschews the superficial dance with spies and concentrates directly on class, shame and betrayal.

Any inquiry into why these themes lodged and endured with David Cornwell (Le Carre’s proper name) start and stop with the man himself, and a definite pointing of the finger towards a conman father who spent time in prison and a mother who abandoned him early. Cornwell was educated at public school. He was, therefore, always aware of the effects of class, shame and betrayal. These were not just elements to be explored but matters central to his life and how he pursued it.

He has written many very good novels and two great ones: A Perfect Spy and The Spy Who came in From the Cold. The former is the nearest he has come to autobiography. The Pigeon Tunnel, a putative biography, is a splendid, entertaining assembly of snippets from a life but not an examination of one. It is, marvellously but irrefutably, an evasion. Le Carre and Cornwell are to be found most authentically in the novels.

Agent Running in the Field may be considered a minor work in his impressive canon but it has more than enough to engage the casual reader. Le Carre fans are dedicated completists, however, and will be rewarded with some splendid moments even if the plot has more holes than a Swiss cheese raked by machine-gun fire.

The class, shame and betrayal can all be ticked off as early as page 12. On page four, he divines immediately on basis of accent that someone he is listening to is not the product of a public school. On page nine, Ned, the hero, states his credentials as the son of an army major and a White Russian émigré. The importance of class duly noted, Le Carre moves to betrayal on page 10, with Ned casually mentioning his mother’s regular affairs. Shame is thus the unwanted gift from an unfaithful mother and an obviously alcoholic father.

The themes move obviously into other characters in this neat, precise novel but Le Carre opens up to other topics. The Constant Gardener was his first major shift in plot and theme since the murder mystery of his early years and the Smiley novels of his highly successful middle period. Big Pharma was taken on in a novel that was both political and polemical.

Agent Running in the Field is his Brexit novel. Ned, a spy who has been educated and stationed abroad, comes home to glide towards retirement. Similarly, Cornwell was stationed abroad and educated at the University of Bonn. He has a home in Cornwall and even on the most foggy days he can see the manufactured mayhem and madness of approaching divorce from Europe.

Ned’s return from sterling service in Europe to what he believes will be a gentle, perhaps boring afterlife is enlivened by a meeting with an earnest young man who believes that Brexit, Trump and the political class are conspiring to make fools and paupers of us all. Ned quietly shares this belief, noting that that his long-lost homeland is “a country in spasm”.

Le Carre, an ardent and more vociferous opponent of Brexit than his creation Ned, gives freedom to another character to give a succinct state-of-the-nation address. Britain is guided by “a bunch of post-imperial nostalgists who can’t run a fruit stall”.

The wider world is visited, too. Washington, slightly off stage, is consumed by thoughts of betrayal, most pertinently in Russian influence through cyber attacks and social media. A meeting with an old collaborator is marked by Ned’s careful noting of the security measures protecting this wealthy Ukrainian dissident and marking his observation: “Who in this f****** universe is rich today and not a thief.”

These scenes are all the more powerful because Ned affects that louche, relaxed air of man of the world that is the preserve of a certain kind of Englishman. Yet there is a growing appreciation, not just by Ned, but by others in a spare novel that time is running out and so is credit.

The irresistible force of malign political forces casts a pall over the narrative that is realistic and convincing. Le Carre tries to conjure up an ending that may be categorised as happy but one senses that his heart is not quite in it.

At 88, he has seen much and written more. The conventional dictates of the novel seem more than duty than a passion. The energy is reserved, firstly, for the unremitting brilliance of the dialogue. With Le Carre, the reader is always an enthralled witness to what the characters are saying and what they are withholding. But, secondly, Le Carre was always a novelist of ideas. The central one of Agent Running in the Field can be crudely summarised by the question: how far does a good man or woman go to prevent a bad or evil outcome?

This, of course, is scarcely original but Le Carre makes it fresh and contemporary. He places it all, inevitably, in a spy story. But David Cornwell only spent three years of his long life in the service of MI5. This gave him the lingua franca of spying that he uses to such effect in his novels but the other 85 years gave him his drive, obsessions and emotional tics.

At one point, Ned admits he is a “public school w*****”. The voice of Le Carre in this is more than echo. Ned’s point is that he may have seemed to have evolved but some things are eternal such as class, betrayal and shame. It need not be that way. But it is.

The genius of Le Carre is that it makes this seemingly desperate and doomed political and personal struggle shimmer under the weak but defiant glimmers of hope and goodness. It is more than a spy story. With Le Carre, it always is.