John LeCarré: Agent Running In The Field – Book Review

1st May 2024 · 2020s, 2021, Film, Books

I admire the fact he was still writing at 88, and he can certainly spin a good yarn after all those years. But, oh man, John LeCarré’s latest spy saga is filled with excruciating anachronisms that make the 21st century seem like a foreign country. 

I confess I had not read a le Carré since my youth, when I found those classics like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy dense, complicated and a bit dry – but fascinating and well-written.

This one, written in his late eighties and published a year before his death last year, is none of those things. And it really shows his age – something I did not see mentioned (much) in the mostly favourable reviews.

My friend Mel Griffiths made the accurate observation that, although it’s set in the present-day, it actually *feels* while you’re reading it as if it’s set in the Sixties.

Perhaps unwisely, it’s written in the first person, from the point of view of an English spy in his mid-forties, and set in London today – a place where tennis courts are made of “tarmacadam,” phones are always “telephones,” bikes are always “bicycles” and sunbathers in parks are only ever “young girls in summer dresses.”

Our narrator is obsessed with the “shiny white thighs” of a colleague in her twenties, referring at one stage to a minor disagreement as “our first lover’s tiff – and we never made love.” When sex does eventually rear its head (a term he thankfully avoids), it is referred to anachronistically as “bonking” – a word no one has surely used for at least two decades.

Post-Brexit London is also a world upon which popular culture has yet to intrude – the only reference to music, in the life of a man who would have been in his teens during the Rave era, is a Schubert lieder, though Sting gets a mention.

At one point he remarks of another character in his twenties: “The biggest gift you can give the young is time.” Which is an odd observation from a 46-year-old; especially one who regularly uses the Footballer’s Pronoun, as in: “Prue and myself went for a walk.”

The anachronisms kick in early: the book begins with our hero receiving a coded message from his local Post Office – echoes of Agatha Christie there – while his fellow spies smuggle “microfilm” to one another. I’m not a spy but I imagine they use the Dark Web these days.

And there’s a huge mistake with a reference to the Socialist Workers Party, which did not exist in the Sixties when they were known as the International Socialists: they did not become the SWP until the Seventies. 

And one of the MI5 types actually refers to our European neighbours as “The Huns and The Frogs.” Really?!

It’s just a teeny bit creepy and sad, and our poor spy doesn’t even seem to be able to google salient facts about suspicious characters he’s investigating (“He went to a grammar school – I forget the name”) or even the film he went to last night with his wife (“I forget the name of the film”).

It’s a miracle the Circus still lets him spy.