A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carre

This is a beautifully constructed novel from 2013. It reflects once again, the author’s distrust of His Majesty’s government, especially its Foreign Office and its espionage and security services. In a way, this work’s conclusion offers a career bookend to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold of 50 years earlier.

Ironically, the structure I so admire here reflects a structure I usually dislike, a structure which bounces the reader among different time frames and different characters. Thus, this novel begins with a botched operation, called Operation Wildlife, on Gibraltar, in which British and American clandestine services join forces to kidnap an arms buyer for terrorists. My acceptance of this structure begins, I believe, with both the reader and the main characters being curious about who initiated this operation and why, what really happened, and how and why the botched outcome was concealed—and continues as Le Carre jumps back and forth and both the reader and the main characters learn the answers at the same time. In fact, it becomes even more of an obsession for those characters when they learn that an innocent woman and her child were killed in the operation, and their deaths were covered up.

The primary men involved are Toby Bell, an idealistic private secretary who suspects his foreign minister boss, Fergus Quinn, of something fishy; Kit Probyn, a middle-aged civil servant who has been rewarded with a knighthood for his role in the “successful” mission, but who Quinn chose to oversee the operation because Probyn seemed too innocent to understand what would be going on; and Jeb, the British commander at Gibraltar, who knows what really happened, knows about the two deaths the operation caused, and is haunted by guilt feelings.

Other participants are; Giles Oakley, Bell’s mentor who advises him not to speak truth to power; Jay Crispin, a shady British operative who was in charge of Wildlife; Fergus Quinn, Bell’s ambitious and secretive boss who sponsors the collaborative project with the Americans; Elliot, the operation’s field commander; and the mysterious Miss Maisie, an American whose wealth funds private defense contractors. With these last four, indeed, the espionage world, in Le Carre’s mind, has truly gone corporate.

The point of the novel is not Operation Wildlife itself; it is the investigation by three men, Kit Probyn, Toby Bell, and Jeb, of what actually happened on Gibraltar. It is their pursuit of the truth driving the story. For the cover-up, in Le Carre’s eyes, is the real crime here, more than the bungled operation itself. Indeed, this portrait of cynical governmental corruption before and after the fact also reflects the author’s response to the end of traditional espionage. He has turned his attention to exposing the corruption that has infected governmental and private agencies as they join forces to profit from combating new foreign adversaries

In the words of James Srodes, writing in The Washington Times, “The plotline of this story is as fresh as today’s headlines about overreaching spy agencies, the private contractors who serve those agencies, and what happens to whistleblowers who try to reveal just who it is behind the curtain twiddling the dials.” And as Sarah Churchwell sums up in the New Statesman, “Faced with a secret state relying on plausible deniability and the subcontracting of its dirty work, Toby and Kit must search for a way to hold power accountable.”

Some critics have disliked this novel. I would speculate it is because they enjoyed too much the former skullduggery and successes of the British espionage services, combined with Le Carre also exploring the moral quandaries raised by certain dark operations. I suspect that what those critics wanted/expected here was more suspenseful action in typical espionage fashion. But the whole point here is the cover-up—and the step-by-step process by which it is exposed. And, in fact, there are still neat moments of suspense at the climax, when Bell does attempt to speak truth to power.

No, this novel belongs to a type that, as Mark Lawson explains in the Guardian, “no other writer has charted—pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers—the public and secret histories of his times, from the second world war to the ‘war on terror.’” In other words, Le Carre is interested in the truth of war, especially when it is a “delicate truth,” because certain actions raise questions no one in power wishes to answer.

This issue is also what Olen Steinhauer raises in the Times Book Review, that by the end of this novel “either you share [Le Carre’s] anger at the injustices between its covers, or you don’t.” And if you don’t, “you’re one of Smiley’s” people, one who accepts the sacrifice of innocents in hot or cold wars. Whereas, this post cold-war era offers another perspective. And Le Carre has switched his concern here to considering the value of the innocents.

Le Carre has published this work at the age of 81. One wonders how many such works he has left in him. I would hope the answer is many. He has written that he does not want to end his career as did Graham Greene, writing short, less consequential work. In this novel, the author shows he still has control of both story and structure. What he does not retain, however, is a sense of the moral quandary that lied behind certain espionage successes of a generation ago. That era is long gone, and Le Carre himself has changed with it. He has become more opinionated, and has recognized that the secret world he once belonged to has become more commercial, more selfish, and more corrupt.

Perhaps a long career of writing about the shadows in the world of espionage, as well as long years thinking about how the world, how humanity, operates, has started Le Carre thinking more deeply about the exercise of power, the foibles of human nature, and the accountability that is so often absent. And at the end of his career he is recognizing that the thinking of his former world of shadows no longer applies. That humans are no longer living up to that world of idealism that we have long purported to believe in. And he now wishes to stress, at the end of his own life, how we humans actually operate today, how we have turned inward, toward valuing and defending means rather than ends. (July, 2017)

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