On the eve of John le Carre publishing his latest spy novel, “Agent Running in the Field,” Sir Richard Dearlove, the former director of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more popularly known as MI6, said that British intelligence officers are displeased with the otherwise well-regarded and popular espionage novelist.
Speaking at the Cliveden Literary Festival, the former spymaster said that John le Carre portrayed the SIS in a negative light. He said that the novels are exclusively about betrayal and they portray the dedicated SIS officers as untrustworthy. Trust between officers is at the heart of the SIS, he explained.
The former director said they have all enjoyed enormously John le Carre’s George Smiley novels, and he admitted that the author did in fact capture some of the essence of what it was like in the Cold War. But he added that John le Carre was so corrosive in his view of SIS that the author angered most professional SIS officers. Sir Richard Dearlove stated that the author, who worked for MI5 and SIS in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was “obsessed” with his relatively brief time as a “spy.”
The late John Bingham, John le Carre’s boss and mentor at MI5, and the man some say inspired the character of George Smiley, also disliked how his protege portrayed the secret services.
In my years performing security work for the U.S. Navy and the Defense Department, and later as a writer, I’ve spoken to many intelligence officers who also dislike John le Carre’s portrayal of intelligence officers, especially his dim view of American intelligence officers. Yet, like me, nearly all of the intelligence officers I know read John le Carre’s novels.
Although I disagree with his leftist worldview, I find John le Carre’s novels to be interesting and compelling, especially my two favorites: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and “The Honorable Schoolboy.” His novels are worth wading through his bouts of anti-Americanism and his dark view of the world of intelligence.
In “Agent Running in the Field” the 88-year-old author’s narrator is a 47-year-old named Nat.
“I was christened Anatoly, later anglicized to Nathaniel, Nat for short. I am five feet ten inches tall, clean-shaven, tufty hair running to gray, married to Prudence, partner for general legal matters of a compassionate nature at an old-established firm of City of London solicitors, but primarily pro bono cases,” Nat says.
“In build I am slim, Prue prefers wiry. I love all sport. In addition to badminton, I jog, run and work out once a week in a gymnasium not open to the general public. I possess a rugged charm and the accessible personality of a man of the world.
“I am in appearance and manner a British archetype, capable of fluent and persuasive argument in the short term. I adapt to circumstance and have no insuperable moral scruples. I am not by any means immune to female charms. I am not naturally suited to deskwork or the sedentary life, which is the understatement of all time. I can be headstrong and do not respond naturally to discipline. This can be both a defect and a virtue.
“I am quoting from my late employers’ confidential reports on my performance and general allure over the last twenty-five years.”
Nat, a veteran British SIS officer and agent-runner, has returned to the United Kingdom after serving overseas and he expects to be forced into retirement. Instead, he is offered the job as head of a run-down London sub-station called the Haven. Supervising a misfit group of officers, Nat discovers a young woman in the Haven named Florence. Nat’s bosses have described her as talented but immature.
Florence is obsessed with a Ukrainian oligarch and London-based criminal code-named “Orson.” Nat likes the operation she has authored and he takes it to his bosses, who take their time in deciding to approve or disapprove.
In the meantime, Nat, a dedicated badminton (racquet ball) player and champion of his club, enters into a series of matches with a young man named Ed. After the matches, the two players have a drink at the athletic club’s bar, where Ed passionately decries President Trump, the Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Brexit, the British move to leave the European Union. Nat, who agrees generally with his younger friend’s view of Brexit, the American president and Putin, hardly gets in a word in as Ed pontificates over his lager.
Later, Nat helps coordinate a huge operation to ensnare a female Russian senior operative and a British traitor. The operation concludes with unexpected consequences.
“Agent Running in the Field” is well-written and suspenseful, and despite the characters’ critical jabs at President Trump and Brexit, enjoyable.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.
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AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD
By John le Carre
Viking, $29, 281 pages