From the bookshelf: Why spy?
26 Feb 2020|

Between the diplomatic dance and the infernal destruction of war is to be found the opaque art of espionage.

Two recent novels dissect the art of espionage with a knowing eye and a clinical precision. The great John Le Carré, now 88, offers his 25th novel devoted to the shadowy lives of spies. In Agent running in the field, Le Carré succeeds brilliantly in creating a contemporary work that reflects the challenges of a post–Cold War world in which Russia and the West continue a very real contest while newer developments such as Brexit destabilise the landscape.

A more recent entrant into first-class espionage fiction is Mick Herron, whose Slough House series started with Slow horses. It now numbers six, with the latest novel, Joe Country, adding to a world in which the rejects of the main spying game (the ‘slow horses’) are obliged to confront foes who are considerably above their pay grade. This is the essential element in Herron’s success. His spymaster, Jackson Lamb, the overlord of Slough House, is about as far removed from George Smiley or M as it is possible to imagine, in a physical sense.

In Agent running in the field, Le Carré also embraces the concept of agents removed from the core business. The ultimate in motley crews are installed in digs well away from headquarters. When our central character from MI6, Nat, anticipating enforced retirement from the service, confronts his new post in a back street of Camden, astonishment ensues:

How any substation came to finish up in this neck of the woods was a mystery in itself. How it had acquired the ironic sobriquet of the Haven was another. There was a theory the place had been used as a safe house for captured German spies in the ’39–’45 war; another that a former Chief had kept his mistress here; and yet another that Head Office, in one of its endless policy lurches, had decreed that security was best served by scattering its substations across London, and the Haven by its sheer insignificance had got overlooked when the policy was scrapped.

Slough House in Mick Herron’s universe is where British secret service agents who have failed spectacularly, either in the field or in training, are sent to disappear. In our litigious age, the service fears lawsuits arguing unfair dismissal from disgruntled agents who have been shown the door. So Slough House, with its meaningless and numbing routines, is designed to encourage voluntary decisions to depart.

Herron describes Slough House in appallingly vivid terms:

The building is a bad tooth set in a failing mouth. Here is where nothing happens: nothing to see here. Move along.

Which is how it’s supposed to be, for this is Slough House, and Slough House deserves no attention. Should a historian attempt to penetrate its mysteries, she’d first have to negotiate a back door which sticks in all weathers, then a staircase whose creaking suggests imminent collapse, but having done so, she’d find little to exercise her notebook: just a succession of offices equipped to face the 1990s, crumbling plasterwork, and rotting splinters in the window frames.

Ian Fleming always had his leading character, James Bond, maintain that he played two games only— cards and golf. Goldfinger showed Bond at his best on the links. A sporting connection in Agent running in the field is badminton, played at Nat’s club, the Athleticus in Battersea. Nat is a champion, as was his father, in the British Army. The new arrival, a much younger man named Ed, wants to challenge Nat’s status as first with the racquet. As with all Le Carré novels, there are more dimensions to both Nat and Ed than are first apparent.

More dimensions are manifest as well in Nat’s family, with his wife, the able human rights lawyer Prue, and his feisty daughter, Steff, as the critical milieu for a spook’s life.

Joe Country takes the misfits of Slough House and places them in operational mortal danger. River Cartwright’s estranged father, Frank Harkness, has returned to the UK intent on destruction. Not only do the slow horses see a challenge in this malign reality, but all of them secretly hope to be redeemed and recalled to ‘The Park’, the colloquial reference to HQ. Why anyone, including the formidable Emma Flyte, would want to serve under ‘Lady Di Taverner’ is problematic. The first desk or lead spy would be just as comfortable working for Lavrentii Beria in 1939 in Moscow as for the British Secret Intelligence Service in London in 2019.

Spies are very much in the news these days, from defectors to the deadly—be they in Berlin, Sydney or Salisbury. Le Carré offers a window into the test for a genuine defector as against a plant.

Yuri Andropov may be long dead, but his spiritual heir, Vladimir Putin, continues in the tradition of the KGB. The Russian defector in Agent running in the field is named Sergei Borisovich Kusnetsev. Debriefed, Sergei appears to be the real item:

And everything tallied, right down to his pen portraits of his pseudonymous trainers and fellow trainees, the tricks of the trade he has been taught, the training gigs he has undertaken and his holy mission as a loyal Russian sleeper agent, which he reeled off like a mantra … The only point of curiosity—and for his debriefers something more than curiosity—was that there was not one grain of new or marketable intelligence in any of it.

Both these books offer convincing experiences with murky worlds that few of us ever experience. Le Carré and Herron are highly skilled craftsmen whose narratives are simultaneously persuasive yet perplexing. Do Western security services really behave as badly as these novels suggest? Not always, perhaps, but the reasons for checks and balances in democratic systems are validated by both these authors, in works as creative as they are confounding.