Summary: two fine, late career works by le Carre assert that Europe is indeed something worth fighting for
It’s no secret that David Cornwall (aka John le Carre) was a MI6 officer before the extraordinary success of his novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. His subsequent Cold War thrillers, many of them featuring George Smiley and his various colleagues, depicted an amoral conflict fought by cynical people for questionable gain but considerable pain. Indeed The Spy Who Came In From The Cold set something of a template for these subsequent works with its gripping portrayal of a British Intelligence plot to kill a senior East German spymaster.
A Legacy of Spies revisits that very plot, exploring it from the perspective of Peter Guillam, another of Le Carre’s recurrent characters, a fellow MI6 officer and friend of Alec Leamas, the eponymous Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It fleshes out some background, ties up some loose ends and answers some nagging questions about that earlier great work.
Agent Running In The Field is a more contemporary story set in the aftermath of the UK’s bizarre decision to leave the EU and bet its future on the whims of the profoundly flaky Trump-Putin axis. Nat, an MI6 officer coming to the end of his career, stumbles across an operation to betray British secrets to the Russians. As he digs into it he finds, with the shifting alliances of the post-Brexit world, and with the corruption of the upper echelons of British society by Russian kleptocrats, that the operation comes closer to home than he could have imagined. (The title is a cheeky nod to Theresa May’s response when asked, “What is the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?”)
Of the two books Agent Running in the Field is perhaps the more satisfying, peopled with believable and likeable characters trying to come to grips with the lunacy of our contemporary world.
But together the two books perhaps represent a reassessment by le Carre of his own life as an intelligence officer. For all the moral ambiguities and unethical activities in intelligence operations, le Carre seems to now conclude that the battles he himself helped fight were indeed important ones, aimed at preserving liberal democracy in Europe from all foes, domestic and foreign. “Everything I did,” Smiley says in A Legacy of Spies, “I did for Europe”.
As the UK falls under the sway of the increasingly authoritarian cabal around Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings it is sobering to contemplate what can happen when the UK’s intelligence agencies do not fulfil their most basic functions of protecting national democracy. Johnson and co have, of course, already taken steps to ensure that their links with Putin are never explored by either MI5 or MI6. Whatever they do next is unlikely to even be in England’s interests, let alone Europe’s.