Agent Running in the Field has it. What it also has is anger. Indeed, le Carre hasn’t been this angry since his 2001 novel, The Constant Gardener, which was a fierce attack on the way the big pharmaceutical companies exploited Africa to test their new drugs and make vast sums from their patented ones. Le Carre was so passionate about its message that he even came to Australia – apparently at his own expense – to promote the book.
Perhaps at the age of 88, you might have expected him to be slowing down – or perhaps calming down. But his 25th novel burns with a distaste for current British politics and an anger at the country’s impending exit from the European Union. And then there’s Donald Trump.
We meet Nat, le Carre’s narrator and a 25-year veteran of the British Secret Intelligence Services – this time it’s the Office, not the Circus – at the South London sports club of which he is badminton champion and where he is facing a challenge from Ed, an outsider who knows Nat only by sporting reputation.
It is Ed who is most disillusioned with the state of British and American politics: ‘‘It is my considered opinion that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterf— bar none.’’
Nat has done his time in Moscow, Prague, Bucharest and elsewhere, recruiting and running agents. Now he’s been summoned to an audience with ‘‘Moira of human resources’’ and fears that his time is up.
Although Moscow Centre, says Moira, is running British agents ragged in London there remains only one spot for Nat. Not in the hoped-for prestigious Russia department, however. She handballs him to the oleaginous Dominic Trench, head of London General, with whom Nat has an unhappy history, who offers him the opportunity of running ‘‘a home-based Russian outstation that’s been in the shade too long’’.
Nat knows the reality of it: ‘‘It’s a defunct substation under the aegis of London General and it’s a dumping ground for resettled defectors of nil value and fifth-rate informants on the skids.’’
It’s almost as if le Carre is creating his own version of Mick Herron’s bestselling Slough House novels, although to be fair Nat is thinner, fitter and cleaner than Herron’s charismatic but corpulent Jackson Lamb.
Among Nat’s charges there is Florence, the great hope of the Haven, bright but with a potty mouth, who proposes an operation to bug the home of a Ukrainian oligarch with links to Moscow Centre. Meanwhile, Nat learns a sleeper agent turned by the Haven has been activated by the Russians as part of an operation to entice a British agent.
As this is le Carre, not everything, not everyone is as it seems.
He does have surprising things to say about the domestic life of an agent, though. Nat’s wife Prue is fully aware of what he does. Indeed after they married, ‘‘she informs me that she has decided to put her legal career on hold and undergo the Office’s training course for spouses shortly to be posted to hostile environments’’. Nat even tells their daughter he is a spy.
As always le Carre is interested in what motivates the spy – money, ideals, patriotism? For Nat and some others, it seems to be the last, an under-appreciated quality, according to le Carre.
And he remains fascinated by the relationship between the spy and his agent. At one point Nat says: ‘‘Not much has been written, and I hope never will be, about agents who devote the best years of their lives to spying for us …’’
It could be straight out of le Carre’s mouth. When he was in Australia, he wouldn’t discuss agents he may or may not have run in East Germany. He was constrained, he said, by his sense of right and wrong.
‘‘Let me try to explain about agents,’’ he told me at the time. ‘‘Very often if someone has decided to be, in effect, a traitor either to his bank or his country or whatever it is, you make him a promise, a solemn promise: that no one will ever know. That his children won’t know, that his grandchildren won’t know. There are still promises being kept to the families of people who spied for us during the Nazi era. Therefore there is no limitation on that stuff.’’
And there is no limitation on le Carre’s ability to write the best spy novels.
Jason Steger is Books Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald