Friday, 25 September 2020

Book review: Agent Running in the Field, John le Carre (2019)

I got this fun genre gem from my local bookstore in early September. I’d run out of things to read and as an afterthought I picked it up because it was there, on a shelf, waiting to be noticed. Like a chocolate bar on a display rack near the supermarket checkout. I’d originally gone to the bookshop to pick up something I’d ordered – they’d sent me an SMS to inform me of its availability and arrival in-store – and while there I browsed for treats. 

Gleebooks never disappoints and le Carre rarely does. If this formulaic novel has one shortcoming it’s the indeterminacy of the ending, especially regarding the fates of some central characters. 

The narrator – an experienced MI6 officer named Nat – and his wife Prue live a normal life in London. Their house is in Battersea and their daughter Steff is contrary, so the base upon which le Carre cleverly builds his edifice is credible. But ‘Agent Running in the Field’ might’ve better been titled ‘The Pair’ or ‘Badminton for Beginners’ in order to play off a major plot device – Nat is an expert at the game and at his sports club meets a young man named Ed who comes to figure largely in his life.

The novel doesn’t disappoint as far as the demands of the genre go, but his handling of the message – which centres on Trump and Brexit – is somewhat insistent. Furthermore you won’t, unfortunately, find any attempt to diagnose the disease that led to these political phenomena, things that have made many people (including le Carre) both unhappy and worried. 

He deserves a credit mark for attempting to talk about contemporary politics, though the inclusion of such elements in genre novels is routine. Adding a bit of evidence that you’re talking about the real world is common for novelists and directors of films, and fans of genre products pride themselves on recognising the linkages between plot devices and contemporary events. A bit of colour can offset the effects of an outlandish plot. 

Le Carre is candid about where his sympathies lie, so ‘Agent Running in the Field’ is something like a manifesto. Due to the fact that personal beliefs seem to function so strongly in spies’ motivations, it’s possible to make such secondary elements more important than they might be in, say, a literary novel, where the writer might choose to examine more profound things, such as the nature of the species or of existence itself. In genre fiction you rarely get to see this sort of topic dealt with, so you feel grateful that he or she chooses to admit you into the inner sanctum, to view his or her political views displayed in relation to the story. I give this one six stars.

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