Agent Running in the Field


John Le Carré

Viking; 281 pages; $29.00

John Le Carré’s latest is not his finest – but given the virtuoso level of his finest, that isn’t too damning. And at this point in his career Le Carré probably doesn’t really care, either. He has something to say.

Le Carré’s golden years was the fever pitch of the Cold War – with its all too human office politics and backstabbing, an often self-defeating institutional paranoia in the shadow if all too real moles like Kim Philby and the Cambridge Three (at least we hope it was just three). This was the tense world through which his master spy-runner George Smiley ran his people. Those books were sensational, brilliant. And so Le Carré’s “golden years” aren’t a matter of a master novelist losing his edge, but his subject matter losing its tension. In his post-Cold War books, the self-loathing and introspection of his unsure heroes is never pulled quite as tight by global events.

In Agent Running in the Field, we something of a return to the old world. This is the world as Vladimir Putin sees it, or rather wants to. In short, Cold War II started again at the closing ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. A saber-rattling Russia trying to extend its orbit to the borders of the former Soviet Empire; The United States as 800 lbs gorilla, stronger than it is clever; and Great Britain – demoted to loyal Lieutenant – caught between two great rivals and, again, the odd man out of European politics. Of course, this time it’s everyone’s favorite upper-class twit Boris Johnson whose putting Britain on the fringe rather than that pedantic goon, Charles De Gualle.

Yet, somehow, what we might call Cold War II lacks the tension of the first. The same could be said for Le Carré’s latest. His books have always been driven with dialogue rather than seat-of-your-pants action – and his stories more interesting for it. The George Smiley of old was. in his creator’s own words, the antidote to James Bond. In Agentall the elements are here; the office politics, the self-loathing, back-stabbing, and the forms filled out in triplicate. But it runs a bit loose, too much is driven by two willfully nondescript men gabbing about politics – not arguing, just chatting. Two Brits casually laying their nation’s woes on Trump.

Whether Trump is to blame is hardly the point. Le Carré is a master storyteller with something to say and this should be a powerful force, except that it has all been said before ad nauseum for close to five years now. The affect here is that the central glue to the story isn’t so much tension as tedium.

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