There are signals from the start of John le Carré’s new novel, Agent Running in the Field, that we are in for a comedy. The words “no collusion” appear on the first page, and the opening scene amounts to a protracted attempt by two characters to set up a badminton match. With Trump and Brexit looming over the proceedings, the novelist would be hard put to exclude a comic element. But one of the ironies of the moment we’ve been living through since 2016 is that no matter how clownishly the leaders of the U.S. and the U.K. have behaved, their opponents among the citizenry and their servants in the intelligence community have remained dead serious. It’s a dynamic that lends itself to a higher form of farce, not unlike competitive badminton.
Across 25 novels and nearly six decades, le Carré—real name David Cornwell, veteran of M.I.5 and M.I.6, forced into an early retirement from espionage by his pseudonymous success—has been the laureate Anglophone dramatist of human intelligence (HUMINT), the stuff agents get from informants, moles, and defectors, as opposed to signals intelligence (SIGINT), gathered from wiretaps and other tapped communications. In his earliest novels—see Call for the Dead (1961) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)—he weaved pure double-cross and double-double-cross plots across the matrix of East-West Cold War antagonism. Taking up the story of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), he proved his method adaptable to headline-worthy topicality. In fact, the novels became psychologically richer as they flirted with front-page news. In the post–Cold War era, he moved on to the secret byways of arms smuggling (The Night Manager, 1993), Big Pharma (The Constant Gardener, 2001), international terrorism (A Most Wanted Man, 2008), and so on. All along—and in contrast to spy novelists like Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum, and Richard Condon—le Carré has been little concerned with glamorous men of mystery and the violent situations that constantly befall them and the femmes fatales that land in their beds. (Well, there are a few such femmes.) His true subjects are institutional rot, dual loyalties, and the unintended consequences of good intentions. Despite its title, Agent Running in the Fieldis a novel mostly about office politics.