“Agent Running In The Field” by John Le Carré

A gentle, convincing, compelling story of modern spying, filled with real people, surprising twists and scathing assessments of our Brexit Blunder and Trump as Putin’s poodle.

I recommend listening to John Le Carré narrating “Agent Running In The Field”.His measured delivery which captures every nuance, his perfectly rendered accents for characters domestic and foreign and his patient, bear-with-me-I-promise-it-will-be-worth-it tone add authenticity to the read. The book is written as a first-person account of events addressed directly to the reader. Le Carré’s narration makes it easy to maintain the illusion that you and he are settled in comfortable armchairs, sharing a glass of something in a private room in his club.

“Agent Running In The Field” is the story of a spy in his mid-forties, returned to England towards the end of his operational career after years spent in various parts of Europe, recruiting agents, mostly to combat Russia’s hybrid war on Western Europe who is now trying to decide what to do next. He ends us with a domestic posting to an obscure branch of the service where circumstances and his own inability to leave his operational instincts behind, result in him being in the centre of a major counter-espionage operation against the Russians in London.

This plot provides the framework for exploring the impact on long-serving offficers of being led by a government committed to delivering Putin’s Brexit and a Foreign Secretary (now Prime Minister) that the security services themselves have identified as a security risk because of his close ties to Russia, at a time when Trump is declaring Europe to be his enemy, undermining NATO and apparently doing whatever Putin asks him to do.

There is an example, early in the book, where the spy tries to explain for the first time to his now-university-age daughter that he is not a low-flying diplomat but a spy tasked with persuading foreign nationals to betray their country. When he explains that some people do this because of their ideals, his daughter, rather sceptically, asks him to specify. What follows gives a great insight into how those who serve our present government may feel about them. The spy says:

“Let’s say, just for instance, somebody has an idealistic vision of England as the Mother of all democracies or they love our dear Queen with an unexplained fervour. It may not be an England that exists for us any more, if it ever did, but they think it does, so go with it.”

“Do you think it does?”

“With reservations.”

“Serious reservations?”

“Well, who wouldn’t have for Christ’s sake?”, I reply, stung by the suggestion that I’ve somehow failed to notice that the country’s in free-fall. A minority Cabinet of tenth raters. A pig-ignorant Foreign Secretary who I’m supposed to be serving. Labour no better. The sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit. I break off. I have feelings too. Let my indignant silence say the rest.

“Then you do have serious reservations,” she says in her purest tone, “even very serious. Yes?”

Too late I realise that I’ve left myself wide open. But perhaps that was what I wanted to achieve all along, to give her the victory, acknowledge that I’m not up to the standard of her brilliant professors and then we can go back to being who we were.

“So, if I’ve got this right,” she resumes as we embark on our next ascent, “for the sake of a country that you have serious reservations about, even very serious, you persuade other nationals to betray their own countries.” And as an after thought: “The reason being that they don’t share the same reservations that you have about your country, wereas they do have reservations about their own country. Yes?”

Yet this book is more than a polemic against the success of Putin’s campaign to destroy the West. It gives a convincing portrait of a man re-assessing his life: his marriage, his relationship with his daughter, the impact of his operational life on his own character and his responsibility to act when he can.

As this is Le Carré, it also provides a very convincing view of modern spycraft which is all the more powerful for its matter-of-factness. Even when the spy places himself in harm’s way, Le Carré manages to convey the reality of the threat without resorting to melodrama.

The plot is entertaining. You know that the various strands must be connected but how and when they connected continued to surprise and please me, right up to the surprisingly action-packed ending.

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