Like detective stories, spy novels are concerned with the unravelling of mysteries, but what sets them apart is the persistence of uncertainty.
The detective may be a boozer or a basket case, but catching killers wipes even the grimiest slate clean. The spy, by contrast, grows less sure of his convictions with every secret he uncovers. John le Carré may not have been the first to identify this paradox – it was also exploited by earlier practitioners such as Eric Ambler – but he grasped its implications like no one before him, and in doing so elevated a disreputable genre to a tenebrous art.
In le Carré at his best, a zero-sum nihilism prevails. A traitor may be unmasked, as in the final pages of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but by then we are so deeply mired in betrayal that his motives seem indistinguishable from anyone else’s. In the end, as honour and ideology hang in tatters, the defence of the realm depends not on true believers but on those whose illusions have deserted them.
All of this seems worth rehearsing in the light of a new novel that seems, for the 88-year-old le Carré, to attempt a final reckoning with the fastidious equivocation that has defined his career.
We saw the first hints of this in 2017’s A Legacy of Spies, which revisits the botched Cold War-era operation first recounted in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. When a senescent Peter Guillam is called to account for his part in the debacle, it is he who ends up casting a cold eye on the service’s murky past, and in particular on its failure – with its Boys’ Own adventures in Berlin consigned to history – to find a grown-up role for itself in postwar Europe.
Even Guillam’s erstwhile mentor, the fabled George Smiley, makes a late cameo appearance, the shuffling cardinal of anti-idealism recast as an unlikely Europhile.
Agent Running in the Field, though a standalone novel with an entirely new cast, is if anything a more decisive renunciation of the old ways. Its protagonist, Nat, is in some ways a familiar figure. A seasoned operator who cut his teeth running agents in Moscow and Tallinn, he finds himself out of favour and now confronts a menial and deskbound twilight. When he is thrown a dubious lifeline, commanding an obscure London substation known as the Haven, he is wary at first but decides to take his chances.
Such wariness, in one of le Carré’s old hands, is no more than we might expect, but Nat is in other respects cast against type. While certainly salted by bitter experience, he has preserved not just a fatalistic equanimity but a temperament that borders at times on the well-adjusted.
The thing about Nat, improbably, is that he has a life. He is happily married, for a start – to a progressive human rights lawyer, no less – and even modestly sociable. He is not only a member in good standing at his local sports club, but its reigning badminton champion.
It is at the club that he encounters Ed, who is vague about his occupation but otherwise forthright. Having demanded to face Nat on the badminton court, he is soon holding forth on the issues of the day.
Ed, it turns out, is a passionate idealist. Having stridently denounced the twin evils of Trump and Brexit (describing the latter as a “clusterf**k”), he insists that Nat declare his own views. Though Nat finds this oddly endearing, longstanding le Carré fans will by now be raising every available eyebrow. None of this, surely, can possibly end well.
In the le Carré demi-monde, at least until now, idealism has rarely been rewarded. Along with greed and sexual indiscretion, jaded spymasters have long regarded it as little more than currency to be traded.
Mindful of all this, Nat responds at first with cagey blandishments, yet he feels the stirrings of something perilously close to an epiphany. “I was in the presence of something rare in the life I had so far led,” he reflects, “namely true conviction.”
This is not to say, of course, that either Nat or le Carré himself have cast aside the habits of a lifetime. Nat’s backwater posting proves no impediment to intrigue, and he is soon enmeshed in a conspiracy which, if not quite as grimly labyrinthine as those of yore, is more than involving enough to keep the pages turning.
Its denouement is satisfying on its own terms, but, considered as a coda to the le Carré oeuvre, its overtones seem quietly momentous. We live in such dark times, it suggests, that disillusioned agnosticism can no longer keep us safe. Even old spymasters, in the end, must emerge from the shadows and choose a side.
Paraic O’Donnell is a novelist and critic. His most recent novel is The House on Vesper Sands ( Weidenfeld and Nicolson)