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Not so good old days: John le Carré. Photo/Getty Images

In Agent Running in the Field, John le Carré takes on Trump and Brexit

The latest by the legendary spy novelist struggles to grip like his Cold War-era novels did.

Strange to say, but the Cold War now seems like the good old days. There was them, and there was us. And there was “Britain’s master spy novelist” John le Carré to give us compelling peeks behind the curtain – the Iron Curtain, of course but also the heavy velvet ones in the offices of power in London and Washington.

A generation on, Russia still threatens. But madness has consumed its opponents. Between Donald Trump, the braying Brexit ultras and the rise of the hard right in Europe, I miss the old certainties, not least when sitting down to enjoy the vicarious thrills offered by Britain’s pre-eminent writer of spy stories.

Arguably, le Carré was at his best before the Berlin Wall fell, though there have been flashes of form since. But his 25th novel, Agent Running in the Field, does little more than demonstrate that, like the Cold War warriors, le Carré’s best days are behind him, even as he tries to stay relevant.

Set against the current dumpster fires consuming politics in the UK and US, this wishy-washy novel finds Nat, an MI6 veteran of the late Cold War, returning to London and his long-suffering wife, Prue, after years of running agents abroad. Nat isn’t washed up as such, but he’s past his prime; he’s gently pushed by his superiors into what seems like a sinecure, running a sleepy UK-based department that controls a few sleepy spies. Called The Haven, it has only one young star, the brittle and humourless Florence, who is about to go postal. In the background, Mother Russia and her criminals are plotting.

Meanwhile, Nat, also a crack badminton player, stumbles into a regular Monday night game with Ed, a friendless moaner and media researcher who likes nothing better than bending Nat’s ear about the horrors of the aforementioned Trump, Brexit and the rise of the hard right.

To convey much more would be to have loose lips. But let’s just say that, once the plot’s red herrings are despatched, a traitor is discovered and Nat finds himself having to choose between the usual suspects: old loyalties and new friends.

If the plot offers no new twists on all the old twists, le Carré’s story does, for the most part, zip along entertainingly enough before ultimately alighting at an insipid ending, and without giving us anyone fully fleshed, or even a memorable line.

Hardly a month goes by without some publisher selling an author as the “new John le Carré”. Few are worthy of the blandishment. Sadly, this version of le Carré would now struggle to merit such praise himself. It isn’t just the good old days and the Cold War that have petered out.

AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD, by John le Carré (Viking, $38)

This article was first published in the October 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.