Mystery novels are among the great escapist indulgences, or so you’d think. Two new espionage thrillers flip that theory on its head with stories that revolve around Russian interference in foreign elections. They may hit close to home, but they still pack in a lot of thrills.
In Agent Running in the Field, John le Carré masterfully moves chessmen around the board, subtly pocketing them while we’re distracted. The middle-aged Nat is preparing to leave (read: be let go from) a career in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service but is surprised to be given a job keeping an eye on Moscow’s equivalent office. The Russians may try to influence Brexit and who comes to power in Britain, but it’s impossible to predict how or when it might happen.
To blow off steam, Nat plays badminton with Ed, an odd fellow who challenges Nat to a match at their athletic club and quickly becomes his weekly partner. There are a few scenes that are genre classics, like discovering a folded message hidden in a lipstick case, but the reader will be most drawn into this tangled tale by its richly drawn relationships among family, friends and colleagues. The scrappy office Nat works from feels more like a dying newspaper than the stuff of cinematic spy thrillers, but that close-knit environment is easily strained when it’s impossible to know who you can trust. Le Carré keeps the tension at a steady simmer that never bubbles over, and it’s an unsettling pleasure to follow this Agent as he persists in his duties.
The action in Tom Bradby’s Secret Service spikes and dips along with its emotional currents. Kate Henderson is a senior MI6 officer facing a nightmare scenario: Britain’s prime minister is ill, and one of his likely replacements may be acting on behalf of Russia. But is the news even true, or is it a fake story designed to sow chaos? Bradby pulls this premise in multiple directions.
Kate’s work relies on her being devoutly loyal to her team, but that allows family ties to fray. Strained relations with her husband and her aging mother have her constantly questioning her own judgment—which is especially dangerous when making the right call at work can mean life or death. A subplot involving her daughter’s new boyfriend shows just how difficult constant suspicion can be on a family. Those moments are human and all too real, nicely contrasting with scenes in which the MI6 agent is on the job. After hours of staring at a screen and eating cold pizza, Kate’s life can turn on a dime when suddenly there’s a firefight or a witness to nab. Tension piles on tension in what feels like a race against time, but the climactic scene is deliberately slow to reveal the answers—and it’s a heartbreaker.
It may skew close to events that feel real, but Secret Service includes a range of settings and dynamic action sequences that unfold with visual flair, making it an immersive, meaty thriller.