Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré - Nat, christened Anatoly, is a 47 year old recruiter and runner of spies that British Intelligence no longer needs in the turbulent capitals of Eastern Europe during the third decade of the 21st Century. With Russian / Scottish heritage he has spent his career in and around Russia. I feel old when I realize Nat spent his entire career engaged in espionage with post-Soviet Russia.
His innate charm and skill at badminton (inherited from his father) are appreciated in the Office but not enough to keep him an active spy runner abroad.
A new member of his athletic club, the gawky and earnest Ed, challenges Nat, the club champion, and they start a series of badminton games. Ed is fiercely anti-Trump, despises Brexit and sees the British Establishment as hopelessly corrupt.
Nat’s former superior in Budapest, Dominic “Dom” Trench, now head of London Central, offers Nat the position of head of substation Haven. A successful stint and both of them may be bound for the coveted Russia department.
Nat’s wife, Prue, a human rights lawyer has spent most of his career in England with their daughter, Steff. She would prefer he depart the Office but is resigned to Nat being unready to leave the world of espionage.
In a fascinating exchange on the ski slopes of Switzerland Nat explains to Steff he is a spy. Steff, with all the self-righteousness of a zealous university undergrad, questions why he spies for a nation about which he acknowledges “serious reservations” concerning the government. Later Steff is furious with her mother for not telling her of Dad’s occupation.
By contrast, his second at the Haven is Florence, a second-year probationer needing seasoning. In accent and manners she is clearly a member of the upper classes. Determined to succeed as a spy she has already recruited the mistress of a Ukrainian oligarch with close connections to Moscow. She proposes a surreptitious entry to his lavish residence.
The remaining staff are either like Nat, at the end of their careers, or Florence, newcomers to the service. Nat and Florence are unlike their colleagues in still having ambitions to move ahead in the Office.
The plot swiftly shifts its focus when administrative decisions do not approve the operation.
When a young Russian sleeper agent, who had defected on his arrival, is activated by Moscow Nat, using all his skills, sees a great opportunity for an intelligence coup. Adept at navigating bureaucracy he places himself at the centre of the operation.
I was startled when British intelligence tasks 100 men and women to an operation to covertly observe an anticipated meeting with a prominent English mole.
Nat’s world comes crashing down when the meeting takes place. It was a brilliant twist I had not seen coming in the plot. And then there was an even more brilliant twist. I was reeling about what would come next in the book.
Agent Running in the Field has so many layers. There are connections between agents, formal and informal, from the intelligence agencies of friends and foes. There are fierce inter-office rivalries. There are complex relationships between the British Establishment and British intelligence. There are friendships, as much business as personal. There are families wrestling with how spy and non-spy family members deal with spying being a family business. There are subtle and direct examinations of the current moralities of England’s democracy and Russia’s dictatorship. There are unexpected personal relationships with startling consequences. And there was not a conventional Le Carré ending. I was glad I was given the book as a Christmas present.
Le Carré, John – (2000) - Single & Single; (2001) - The Constant Gardner (Second best fiction of 2001); (2005) - Absolute Friends (Best fiction in 2005); (2008) - Mission Song; (2009) – A Most Wanted Man; (2016) - A Quartet of John Le Carré; (2016) - The Night Manager and The Writing of and Reaction to The Night Manager and The New Night Manager T.V. Series