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John le Carré Works Out Some Obsessions In “Agent Running In The Field”

Here is a brief excerpt from Bethanne Patrick’s review of John le Carré’s latest, Agent Running in the Field, for NPR. To read the complete review, check out other resources, and learn more about NPR, please click here. NPR deserves our generous support, especially now.

At 88, novelist John le Carré continues to turn out books that writers of any younger age would kill to publish. Agent Running in the Field, his 26th, opens cheekily with a badminton challenge: Nat, close to retirement and even closer to redundancy due to his inability to accept authority, is obsessed with this racquet sport.

He belongs to a peculiarly genteel (read: wholly British) sort of gym, the Athleticus Club, where there’s a rota for matches, a dressing room, and some kind of bar-cum-bistro where club champion Nat retires for pints of lager after he’s whupped his latest opponent. Badminton, he tells us, is “stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying wait to unleash your ambush, while the shuttle describes its leisurely arc.” He considers it caste-free, a haven from the “chers collègues” in the intelligence service he works for at whom he constantly snipes.

Not only is Nat displeased with the rung to which he’s been demoted at work, not only does he loathe the class hijinks represented by the various higher-ups he must entreat as part of the assignment he is finally given, but he has a beloved wife, Prudence, who’s a powerful human rights attorney working on taking down Big Pharma. His loyalties may not be divided — he and Prudence do not have a perfect marriage, but it is strong — but they are tugged on, and constantly.

The tugging intensifies when Ed Shannon shows up, young, fit, and looking to take on the best badminton player around. Nat cannot resist this challenge, and soon the pair meets weekly — Nat almost always winning, but also looking forward to their odd afterchats, in which Ed expounds on his hatred of the current American president, as well as the system that president supports, which has strengthened their own country’s Brexiteers. Nat occasionally puzzles over Ed’s braying rants, but his head is full of plans for the odd-man-out substation he’s been made chief of, in what he believes is his last chance to make his mark on the service to which he’s devoted nearly half a century.

Before turning to What Happens Next, a word about le Carré’s prose: Not only does it hold the coiled energy of a much younger writer, it fits the bitter, angry narrator’s voice exceptionally well. That’s important, because Agent Running in the Field relies less on action than some le Carré titles, and many other spy novels, and more on dialogue. If the author obsesses about betrayal, his mechanism for that obsession is the conversation. A scene in an old-school London fish restaurant, between Nat and his protégée Florence, crackles with Nat’s knowledge that he’s been played.

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Here is a direct link to the complete review.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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