Agent Running in the Field by John le Carre: A review

As John le Carré nears his 90th birthday (he was born in 1931), it is good to note that he really has not lost a step when it comes to constructing a convoluted brain-teaser of a spy thriller. His skills are on full display in his latest book, Agent Running in the Field.

Even the title of the book is open to interpretation. Does it refer to a "spy handler" who manages agents in the field? Or does it refer to an agent who is running to escape? In the end, it could be both or either.

This is le Carré's first book set in the Trump/Boris Johnson/Brexit era and one of the characters, Ed, expounds what I would guess is the author's jaundiced view of that entire debacle. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with a spy handler named Nat being pulled from that job and brought back to London. Nat is a twenty-five-year veteran of MI6 and he loved his job in the field. He is not happy about being pulled from it and suspects that he is about to be given his walking papers. Instead, he is offered the management of the Haven, a London-based intelligence substation that seems to be in disarray. Nat is not entirely clear as to whether he is supposed to fix the substation's problems or help to close it down. But he accepts the position and goes to work.

Soon after, one of his aides abruptly quits due to the cancellation of a project she had been working on. About the same time, Nat meets a young researcher named Ed at his club. Ed seems possessed of a fiery personality and is not hesitant about sharing his views on current events. But he is also a top badminton player and Nat is the badminton champion at his club. Ed seeks a match with him and Nat agrees. There ensue regular matches between the two almost every week. At first, Nat wins but then gradually Ed overtakes him and begins winning. After each match, they retire to the bar for a drink and there Ed expounds his views and Nat, the non-political civil servant, mostly listens. Ed sums up his views thusly:
"It is my considered opinion that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none."
No one can accuse Ed of ambiguity.

In fact, Ed's strong views lead him to try to do something to (as he sees it) save his country and that ultimately brings him to Nat's professional attention. By this time, the two have developed a friendship and Nat is somewhat torn as to how to handle his knowledge of Ed's activities. And thereby hangs this tale as we see how Nat resolves his dilemma.

Nat and Ed are interesting characters and we are fully engaged in how their interactions play out and are resolved. The other secondary characters in the book are less well-developed and more difficult to get a handle on. Nat's long-suffering wife, Prue, for example, never quite came through clearly for me.

But the writing otherwise rises to the standard of excellence that long experience in reading le Carré would lead one to expect and the plotting is just impeccable. The writer sprinkles clues throughout to show us where he is headed and I sort of had it figured out by near the end, but there's always that final twist that just makes you tip your hat to the master. Although this may not be his best effort - that would be a high bar to excel - it's pretty darned good. A fun read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 


  1. I love a book with interesting characters and the fact that the author gives you some hints and tips while reading is always so much fun! I love trying to figure it out, but it's also fun when you're totally wrong about it!

    1. Le Carré is the expert at scattering clues around through the text and he's the master of convoluted plots. This book is a good example of both.

  2. I might like to get this one for my husband -- he is a le Carre fan & reader. I think he's been suspicious this one won't be as good ... but he should give it a go. I'm glad the author is still writing at 90.

    1. He's certainly an inspiration to us all as we get older!

  3. It is good to know that le Carré is still writing. It is also good to know that he retains a lot of his skills. I really need to delve into a few of his books. I would start with some of the older ones.

    1. The early series of books featuring George Smiley are still the gold standard of spy novels. If you've never read le Carré, that would be the place to start.

  4. This one was a big favorite in our house. No, he has not lost his touch. It is all there!


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