John Le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (Viking 2019)
Ever since I saw Richard Burton in The Spy who Came in from the Cold on a double bill with Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death in Cairns in 1966, I’ve been a fan of movies based on John Le Carré’s novels. The novels themselves not so much, though Le Carré’s prose is always lucid, his plots brilliantly intricate, and his characters satisfyingly compromised. My main memory of the last Carré novel I read, The Honourable Schoolboy, was frequently falling asleep over it. All those betrayals and counter-betrayals, the polite British ruthlessness, the tradecraft and codewords, work brilliantly for me on the screen, but on the page require too much labour for too little return.
Then someone gave me Agent Running in the Field as a Christmas present., with the admonition that I need to read something that’s just fun instead of all the heavy stuff that’s been my diet lately (their words not mine).
I enjoyed it. It’s short, and comparatively simple, another spy on the brink of retirement pulled back into active status by chance occurrences and bureaucratic imperatives. Here’s how it starts:
Our meeting was not contrived. Not by me, not by Ed, not by any of the hidden hands supposedly pulling at his strings. I was not targeted. Ed was not put up to it. we were neither covertly nor aggressively observed.
A challenge to a game of badminton follows, and then the game itself. We know from those first sentences that the game is completely innocent, but that it will not always seem so. Le Carré is brilliant at giving us enough information that we can leap to our own conclusions, which often turn out to be right. He makes his readers feel smart, so long as we don’t lose concentration.
Le Carré is nearly 90 years old, and has given his characters permission to rant about the state of things – Trumpism, Brexit, and to a lesser extent Big Pharma – in gloriously extreme language.
My gift-giver was right. This is perfect for reading on lazy summer days.