A Legacy of Spies; and Agent Running In The Field, by John le Carre

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.

The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes

Summary: The story of Oedipus is more complex than you might think

The Irish playwright Frank McGuinness has described Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King, as the first police procedural, focussing on Oedipus’ hunt for the culprit responsible for the plague on Thebes. So powerful a vision did Sophocles present that Natalie Haynes herself has argued in her spectacularly entertaining radio series, Stand Up For The Classics, that it has reverberated ever since in the personae of every brooding murder detective to have gotten their own TV show … apart maybe from Miss Marple.

Undaunted by the weight of this literary heritage, Haynes has imagined her own version of the tragedy of Oedipus and his family. Focussing particularly on two of the characters that Sophocles left rather silent, Jocasta and her daughter Ismene, Haynes has managed to craft something of a multi-generational political thriller that put me in mind of Seamus Deane’s masterpiece, Reading in the Dark.

Like Deane’s book, The Children of Jocasta follows the efforts of a young person, Ismene in this case, to unearth the truth of their family’s history. This has been kept from her and her siblings because it represents some rather awkward truths for the powers that be in her present-day Thebes. While there are a few differences between ancient Thebes and 20th Century Derry, human nature remains the same. And like Deane, like Sophocles, Haynes story is filled with compelling and believable characters confronted with some horrible dilemmas.

Haynes has thrown in a few sexy analogies to apricots – something she has pointed out elsewhere would not have been available in Greece for another thousand years – but the rest of her context is resolutely realistic. There are no “deus ex machina”, peculiar riddles, or flying monsters. Swords may glitter beautifully, but they also make horrible messes of human bodies, and power represents a prize that some may sacrifice even the closest bonds of family for.

As with her wonderful account of the Trojan War, A Thousand Ships, The Children of Jocasta brings new, predominantly female, perspectives on stories that many of us may feel we already know inside out. In doing so, she again finds the power to surprise and delight her readers with an exquisite piece of writing.

Munich, by Robert Harris

Summary: a tense journey to the heart of banal darkness

As Hitler masses his troops on the border with Czechoslovakia, threatening an invasion that will draw Britain and France into a general European conflagration, Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister contemplates how to avoid war. Surely the sacrifice of a small nation to a tyranny is a reasonable price to pay?

As the leaders of Germany and Britain circle each other two relatively low level civil servants on either side, Hugh Legat and Paul Hartmann, one-time friends at Oxford, begin to renew contact in a bid to avert what is coming.

Harris’ latest thriller is based around the infamous 1938 international conference in Munich. But its most powerful theme for me was the empathetic exploration of the nascent German Resistance. Hartmann, a character who bears a striking resemblance, physically and biographically, to the real Resistance leader Adam von Trott, seems a little mad to his old friend Legat. But Hartmann has seen the true face of Nazism and understands the “power of unreason” that has gripped Germany. So he does not share the British delusions that Hitler is just another politician who reasonable men can do reasonable business with.

Harris has written “counter factual” thrillers, such as “Fatherland” set in a 1960s Germany in which Hitler has won the war, as well as ones more scrupulously rooted in fact, such as the superb “An Officer and a Spy” about the Dreyfus Affair. Consequently one isn’t too sure exactly how this particular story is going to turn out.

The result is a fine and tense exploration of this historical moment, and how even the best of motives can result in the most catastrophic of consequences.

Conclave, by Robert Harris

The pope is dead. It falls to Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, to oversee the Conclave to elect the new pope.

The one hundred and eighteen men who gather to elect a new pope are a diverse mix: conservatives and liberals from every corner of the world, some desperate for the prize, some dreading the prospect.

I started reading this book the day after Donald Trump was elected, on a minority of the votes as it transpired, as President of the United States. I was desperate for a story to transport me from the bleak reality.

It can be a bit hit and miss on the cheeriness front with Harris – things turned out okay for Dreyfus in An Officer and a Spy, Cicero not so much. But Harris always puts together a good political thriller, and this is no exception with the growing tension as the voting in the Sistine chapel proceeds.

At the heart of the story is Lomeli, a man of faith and doubt, trying his best to behave honourably in the face of the dark secrets and challenges that emerge. I don’t know what Harris’ own religious views are but he provides a deeply sympathetic and empathetic account of the beliefs and thinking of the high cleric and committed Catholic at the heart of the story.

As a remarkable coincidence after I finished this book early one morning I switched on the television to see a 2011 interview with Robert Harris talking about Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair. In the interview Harris concluded that there has never been anyone who can quite fill the gap left by Greene, a writer of gripping thrillers which wrestled with serious moral concerns and complex philosophical issues. I’m not so sure that since he gave that interview in 2011, Harris himself hasn’t made a creditable claim on Greene’s mantle.

Dictator, by Robert Harris

 Dictator is the final volume in Robert Harris’ fictionalised three-volume biography of Cicero, covering the years up to his death and with it that of the Roman Republic.

Cicero did have a biography written by his secretary Tiro, the inventor of one of the first systems of short-hand which still echoes into contemporary English, for example, e.g. Fortunately for Harris, that biography has been lost to history, so he has constructed his own trilogy as if it were Tiro’s biography of Cicero, with Tiro as narrator.

As with the previous two volumes of the trilogy, Imperium and Lustrum dealing with earlier phases in Cicero’s career, Dictator is a gripping political thriller, covering the period from Cicero’s exile to the downfall of the Republic with the establishment of the second triumvirate of Antony, Lepidus and Octavian.

 Contrary to Goldsworthy’s Caesar, or Massie’s fictionalised accounts of the period, with Harris Cicero is presented as a hero, albeit a flawed one, a proponent of rule of law against arbitrary and tyrannical rule in spite of personal threats and the moral cowardice of his contemporaries.

Unlike Goldsworthy who typically tries to explain his subjects in the contexts of their own time, Harris deliberately seeks parallels with the present. Here he presents a warning for a polity that disdains basic principles of rule of law.

But, Harris does not allow the vital political-philosophical points to interrupt the narrative, which is gripping, as Cicero with only logic and argument in the face of shocking violence seeks to maintain constitutional principles in the face of the vanity of warlords.

The result is a fine political thriller, with much to recommend it for the student of the ancient world.