Agent Running In The Field by John LeCarre

LeCarre is a recent discovery, relatively speaking. He is widely considered the father of modern espionage fiction, which seeing as he worked for the intelligence services, is not that obvious a distinction to make. He was always someone I admired and respected but never read his work before an impulsive loan of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold opened my eyes to his body of work.

This is a later book, post-Glasnost, which is a more complicated time politically than the Cold War, and yet uses it to contrast and demonstrate both the changes in geo-politics and also how little has changed. Using the perspective of an agent who has a long and storied career, and shock horror isn’t a twisted parody of himself, as in he’s married and has an understanding wife, who herself is far more than an appendage, pursuing her own career whilst also providing a strong counterpoint in the story. His return to the field is to take over a defunct department, and what he uncovers also ties into a personal acquaintance, a young firebrand who rants about Brexit and Trump (we all know one, don’t we?) From there, the story moves like an athlete off the starting blocks, humming with energy and insight, a clear and cogent understanding of honour and duty, as well as the complicated stew of personal and political, as well as the ambition and incompetence which tends to spoil things in such institutions.

LeCarre has a crisp, confident writing style, and his character work is superb, able to give an idea of a character in a few short lines, and enough biography to give a sense of substance to even the most innocuous entrant into the story. He also has a wonderful eye for the irrational passions of the heart and the way it can complicate the platonic ideals of nation states, and espionage operations, whilst also never forgetting to give the reader an entertaining and involving story. The political interjections provide colour and flavour to the story, without leaning into a polemnic. Politics are inherent to the espionage story, but in lesser writers, it can sound like a lecture, and fails to make the point of how good story is almost insidious by how it bypasses the rational and approaches the emotional. Here, I can see how the points made were formed and informed, and consider my own feelings on the subject. That, to me, is the mark of a sterling writer, and a point more than a few authors could learn from.

I’ve made my way through a large chunk of his work, and even the more personal, discursive work entertains with a ribald, honest look at how people are, although my preference is for anything involving George Smiley, who is one of my favourite characters in fiction.

So, in these times where the notions of control, duty and freedom are being discussed, then this book is a tangential dip into cooler waters. An idea of rational, capable individuals doing their duty and suffering the personal and professional consequences to defend institutions of whom they are aware of its flaws, but defend nonethless. It’s also entertaining, doesn’t overstay its welcome and has an ending as neat and yet plausible as anything I’ve seen, with a wonderful grasp for allowing the reader to imagine the consequences beyond the page.

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