The other Young Person in the novel is Florence, a brilliant agent in her early 20s who’s spearheading what seems to be the Haven’s biggest operation: a surveillance effort against a London-based Ukrainian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin. Though Nat observes how Florence dresses down, favoring “baggy woolen skirts, flat shoes, no make-up,” virtually every thought he has about her is sexualized nonetheless. Early on, he notes that their relationship is “emphatically non-tactile, with each of us going to elaborate lengths not to brush hands or otherwise make physical contact.” When he asks Florence to join him and Ed for a match with Ed’s sister, Nat notices her “shiny white thighs” in her badminton skirt. “Florence, you are not supposed to look like that,” he thinks. Later on, when they meet for dinner, he bemoans how a verbal altercation is “our first lovers’ tiff and we never made love.”
Le Carré’s characters are rarely unimpeachable. Peter Guillam sleeps with a young woman whom he considers to be his ward. George Smiley, for all his ferocious emotional intelligence, is in thrall for far too long to his feckless wife, Ann. Jonathan Pine’s sloppiness gets a woman killed. In Agent Running, Nat—who is married, though not always faithfully so, and has a daughter around Florence’s age—isn’t creepy, necessarily. His interactions with Florence contain no obvious innuendo or inappropriate overtures. But nor do they allow a young, fiercely talented woman to simply do her job. Nat is astute enough to observe that the SIS is just another old boys’ club, rewarding failure rather than potential, and icing out the agents who could represent its brightest future. What he can’t see—whether due to his own blind spots or his creator’s—is where he’s part of the problem.
In many ways, the intrigue of Agent Running in the Field is secondary to its function as a renowned author’s scathing indictment of a country selling itself out. Russia, in Nat’s description of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, is “not going forward to a bright future, but backwards into her dark, delusional past.” And Britain, with its “minority Tory cabinet of tenth-raters” and “a pig-ignorant foreign secretary” (who, in the world outside the book, recently became prime minister), seems to be following a short way behind. Le Carré—through his characters—is particularly caustic when it comes to British leaders’ courting of Trump, a president one of Nat’s former agents describes sourly as “Putin’s shithouse cleaner … [doing] everything for little Vladi that little Vladi can’t do for himself.” The Brits, the same agent complains, “sold me a cartload of hypocritical horseshit,” while cheerfully selling half of London to Putin’s own cronies.
In the last 75 pages of the novel, the various strands of Nat’s life begin to intertwine in ways that seem inevitable, given the book’s early emphasis on his badminton habit. But the payoff, in the end, is less surprising and compelling than the setting: a country that, in le Carré’s portrayal, seems to be decaying from the inside out. Agents Running in the Field captures a Britain whose power, influence, and claims to integrity are shown to be absurdly overblown. Even so, as a new installment in le Carré’s canon, the book also demonstrates that Britain is still a potent cultural force. Film and TV producers are more enthused by le Carré’s novels than ever before, while the author himself—a little crankier, perhaps, than he once was—remains one of the most shrewd and sonorous voices willing to speak truth to power.