John le Carré is about the best genre writer sitting in my bookcase—he writes literate espionage thrillers with exquisite style, keen observation, and dark wit. His books are complex in texture and thought and are rich with detail, atmosphere, and mystery. They bear re-reading, becoming a different experience each time, as new slippery meanings and treacherous ambiguities pulse under their surfaces. In le Carré’s world, the concrete under our feet grows thin, eroded by betrayal and poisonous secrets.
It’s not surprising his former antagonist Salman Rushdie recently said he thought Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to be one of the great novels of post-World War II Britain. His novels also seem to be portraits of a nation in steep decline, falling so low, it no longer has control over its own foreign policy and, hence, its fate.
Another le Carré theme is the dilemmas faced by good guys when they become ensnared in bad deeds on behalf of the institutions whose values they loyally serve, even when those values are betrayed.
A Delicate Truth, le Carré’s twenty-first title, returns to that theme. It opens from the enigmatic point of view of a nameless veteran official in the British Foreign Office who, dressed in a second-hand alias fitted by his superiors, is sent as a behind-the-lines observer on a mission to capture a suspected jihadist said to be hiding out on the island of Gibraltar.
The mission, as far as he can see from watching via a bank of fuzzy video monitors, looks to be a success. The diplomat, whose real name is Christopher “Kit” Probyn, is rewarded a sinecure post in the Caribbean and retires with a knighthood, confident that he did right by King and Country.
At the same time, another side player in this game, Toby Bell, a private secretary to Minister Fergus Quinn, supposedly the raid’s architect, is wondering exactly what his boss has been up to. Despite Toby’s official relationship his boss, Quinn and his allies do not trust Toby’s blend of easygoing liberality and integrity, and so they excise him from their inner loop, leaving him a puzzled spectator.
Gnawed ratty with suspicion, Toby cleverly records an ultra-secret meeting between Quinn and the raid’s commandos. From there, he nudges about, trying to share his information. But he’s ignored and then finally warned off by his Foreign Office mentor, Giles Oakley. After the raid, he’s abruptly shunted to a faraway post in a faraway corner of the globe, where, those in power suppose, his suspicions will do no harm.
Three years later, Kit is visited by Jeb, one of the commandos Toby recorded on his secret tape along with Kit, as it turns out. Jeb’s conscience is eating him to death. He tells Kit that he saw nothing of what really happened that night: the raid did not go off as promised and, in fact, led to an ugly, if unsurprising, tragedy.
Kit, with his pleasing old-style Englishman’s sense of honor and human decency, is staggered by this revelation of his culpability. He reaches out to Toby for help in uncovering the ugly truth of what happened that night and seeing that justice is done.
I don’t think this le Carre’s best book, but it’s still very good, in how its plot and story twist and wind about. It end with an extremely taut and hair-raising climax, as the cover-up unwinds at the same time that dark forces wind in around Toby and Kit.
The prose is finely sinuous as ever, but the author sometimes seems too determined to hammer home his dismay about the current conduct of the so-called War on Terror. A Delicate Truth hectors more than I like and feels a little too “ripped from today’s headlines.” (Full disclosure: I don’t like overly “messagy” prose, regardless of whether I agree with its sentiments or not. It’s fine for characters to have opinions, but a third-person narrator should be circumspect. Once an author starts shaking his own finger in my face I . . . well, I sometimes get peckish.)
Also, as awful as the crime that hides within A Delicate Truth’s is, it feels dwarfed by the real events of the last twelve years. It feels like more of a footnote than a symbol of something larger. While reading, I thought about the many pages of nonfiction out there that would do a better job in facing the same issues probed here.
For example, if we had also seen events as they happened at the other end of the gun barrel, the novel might have been more effective.
At its best, A Delicate Truth portrays our queasiness at being trapped between a realistic fear of jihadist war and an equally plausible fear we should feel about those we’re supposed to look to for protection.
Le Carré, the ex-British spy, has been out of the actual espionage business for fifty years now and much about spying has changed. But reading his books, I’m still left with a sense of how things really work in the world of espionage and fading empires.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by authorThomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.