Smiley is dead.
John Le Carré passed away overnight. I listened to his last novel Agent Running in the Field on Audible a couple of months ago and made a note to write something about it. It was, of course, beautifully written. Le Carré narrated the audiobook himself, which I found a bit odd, at least to begin with. He is, or was, an old man and he sounds like it. It turns out he is also a talented voice actor and if he’d recorded this audiobook when he was a couple of decades younger, he may well have been perfect. My only quibble with the production was that it was a bit hard at first to imagine myself into the character of Nat, a 47 year old member of the British secret intelligence service, when the voice in my head was very obviously a man in his late 80s. I got around it by simply telling myself I was listening to an old man tell me about his younger adventures.
But put all that aside. It's a great book and I would happily recommend that anybody read it, whether you’re a fan of his previous work or not.
I must confess this is my first Le Carré novel. A disgraceful oversight, yes. The prose is silky smooth, the pacing meticulous, and the author seems every bit as well-informed about the procedural minutia of life inside the modern Secret Service as he was in the decades after he served.
It’s a story set in the real world. Trump is President and Brexit is looming. Nat has reached that stage in his career where it seems obvious to everybody, himself included, that he should take a quiet desk job somewhere and wait to die. Instead he ends up running a small operational outpost which may or may not have tripped over a Russian intelligence op. This is more in the way of background colour, however, because the main arcs of the story concern his family relationships, now that he’s come in from the cold, the weird reverb between Secret Service office politics and wider geopolitics, and Nat’s friendship with Ed, a young man he meets at his Badminton club who might or might not be a crazy bomb throwing extremist and/or Russian agent.
All of the possible known unknowns are floated early in the opening chapters, so I'm not giving away spoilers here. I found the book a quiet joy to ‘read’ and often found myself thinking, 'I wish I could do that' when Le Carré busted out some particularly brilliant bit of literary understatement.
Everyone’s doing their JLC obits today, but one that stood out for me was the New York Times appraisal that acknowledged him as the source for a very well known bit of jargon within the intelligence community.
Mr. le Carré had a knack for language of every variety. His books hum with the flavorful and recondite language of espionage. He invented some of this jargon himself — the term “honey trap,” for instance, to denote using sex to compromise a target, made its way from his work into the intelligence community.
If you like your espionage procedurals detailed, and your prose finely crafted, you’ll enjoy it. I will pour one out for the old bloke tonight, and maybe even grab a copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.