A Delicate Truth

John le Carré is still at the top of his game with this heady tale of espionage in the age of the war on terror.

A Delicate Truth By John le Carré Viking Adult 320 pp.

At 81, John le Carré remains in full command of both the craft of writing and the art of espionage. His latest novel, A Delicate Truth, joins several late-career le Carré works set amid the war on terror. 

The book begins with a middling Foreign Office diplomat plucked from obscurity and sent into the British territory of Gibraltar as part of a spy mission also involving Americans and a private security firm. The latter bears the inspired, ironic name of Ethical Outcomes.

A shadowy executive at the private contractor serves as the Svengali to former MP Fergus Quinn, the Foreign Office minister who presides over what – inevitably – devolves into a botched mission. The cover-up is where le Carré’s tale takes on resonance, both for the bureaucrat, Sir Christopher Probyn, and the minister’s disillusioned secretary, Toby Bell.

Dubious morals and the ever-present collateral damage, not to mention the corruption of endless hush money, play their usual starring roles in le Carré’s new book. What began as a plot to capture a terrorist-linked arms dealer morphs into horrifying guesswork.

Le Carré’s novels may not be fun (see Lee Child’s "Jack Reacher" series or Elmore Leonard for that type of thriller), but they are heady and absorbing.

And the author leavens his outrage with solid plotting and dollops of humor.

Early in the book, when one of the team members on the mission frets that a target has changed his mind, a colleague cracks wise. “Hasn’t got one, darling,” he says. “He’s a bungalow. It’s all downstairs.”

The author could be criticized for invoking tropes such as evangelical Americans funding black ops and looking the other way when laws are broken except, of course, that much of what le Carré details in his fiction – or worse – has really happened.

Covered-up scandals from the Foreign Office minister’s past bubble up, but to little effect. And this same minister displays some odd work habits, disappearing for extended stretches to foreign shores and refusing to let his secretary see documents or even his schedule. When the minister does happen to be around, he often locks himself in his office and blasts Bach at ear-splitting levels.

At other times, one senses le Carré himself speaking through his characters. For example: “Given his head, he would long ago have swept away Britain’s private education system, abolished all vestiges of entitlement and put the monarchy on a bicycle.”

And, given the terrain of le Carré’s recent books, there is little doubt that at times he moves from ambiguity to op-ed.

Toby Bell, who becomes enmeshed in the botched mission in a sublimely ridiculous and risky manner, sounds like a man whose idealism would leave George Bush and Tony Blair cold.

“And if he is right, which increasingly he believes he is, what is the moral distinction, if any, between the man who applies the electrodes and the man who sits behind a desk and pretends he doesn’t know it’s happening, although he knows very well.”

Some readers will see this as out-and-out proselytizing. Others will find it to be the gospel truth. And yet others will simply see it as a particular character’s viewpoint in a well-written novel.

Still, le Carré has never been subtle about his dim view of spying and the infinite ethical lapses inherent in such organizations and operations. Misinformation and mistakes abound as the political machinery chews people up and then discards them in favor of new acolytes. The desultory nature of spying and intelligence, along with the steep costs literally and figuratively, resonate in le Carré’s work.

In Gibraltar, the nighttime raid comes replete with satellite images beamed back to the minister in London, who is among those attempting to coordinate field teams on land and water as blurry images flit on and off computer monitors. Cell phones vibrate as soldiers, spies, and others try to discern what is happening and when to act and in what manner. What could go wrong?

If that’s not enough, le Carré can still write with a flourish. To wit: "[H]e scowled upward through the grimy net curtains at Gibraltar’s legendary Rock, which, sallow, wrinkled and remote, scowled back at him like an angry dowager.”

Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.

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