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)

Watergate, by Thomas Mallon

This 2012 work is another example of history as a novel. Mallon put extensive research into this work, surely taking advantage of the many works written by the participants. The result is “we are there”—in terms of the individual actions and the conversations of a multitude of characters. And these actions and conversations are entirely believable, even as they verge on the scandalous. Indeed, on many pages, with its lying and its cheating in both its politics and its love affairs, this novel often reads like the inside scoop of a gossip columnist.

The novel is highly readable, of course, and entertaining, but it is also quite confusing. First, because there are so many characters. Even the author seems to realize this, as he lists 112 “players” over four pages before the story begins. And such a multitude makes it next-to-impossible for the reader to separate the main characters clearly, to grasp their relationship to one another and to the events, whenever they reappear on the scene.

Second, because even as we follow this story from the inside, we must be a student of Watergate history to grasp how these events reflect what is going on in the outside world, in that world of Woodward, Bernstein, Deep Throat, Jaworski, Cox, Sirica, and the American public.

And third, because, early on, the characters are reacting to events that are not put fully into context, and over which they themselves have no control. Moreover, they are reacting rather than causing others to react to them.

Mallon calls this first half, “Hide,” as the participants seek to conceal both their own involvement and the president’s. But the reader keeps asking, what is really going on here? Why are these people doing what they are doing? What is the connection among their various actions?

The second half Mallon calls, “Seek.” This is not only the government seeking to learn its responsibility under the law, it is also the participants seeking to learn what the government knows about their actions. These participants are now more active than reactive, and do become more interesting as characters.

What distinguishes this book is that Mallon has put himself into the minds of all his major characters, beginning with President Nixon and his wife Pat. But they also include Howard Hunt, Rose Mary Woods, and Elliot Richardson. And especially they include Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the elderly daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, whose presence adds considerable color and even humor, but whose function beyond that was never clear to me.

Even more significant a character is Fred LaRue, deputy director of the Committee to Re-elect the President. His presence is justified for two reasons. First, he was in regular contact with the Watergate break-in team: Liddy, Magruder, Colson, McCord, and Bernard Barker. He is also the one who delivers the hush money to the burglars. And second, Mallon uses LaRue’s personal story, separate from the Watergate break-in, a story about his responsibility for the death of his father—as a through-story to tie the novel together.

LaRue has an affair with a Clarine Lander, an attractive seductress and a Democrat, who is apparently one of the three fictional characters in the book. It is she who obtains for him the official file concerning his father’s death, and it is her nickname (given to her by Mallon) that seems to set off the actual break-in of chairman Larry O’Brien’s office at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This revelation is a bit of irony that leads the reader to smile, but it is an irony manufactured by the author. It cannot for me tie together his entire novel. Yet Mallon seems to have intended this personal story to do so, for he says in his Acknowledgements that of all the historic characters, “LaRue’s life has undergone the greatest degree of fictionalization.”           

One other fictional character (because his name in the list of “players” is also written in quotation marks) is Tom Garahan, supposedly a retired lawyer. He is introduced as a boy friend of Pat Nixon. I just do not understand why Mallon has created him. It is as if the author thinks that Pat Nixon must have needed an emotional relief from a cold, detached Nixon. Yes, he is careful to not to put them into bed, not to make them lovers, but it does not help me to understand Pat better, to make her a more real or more sympathetic person, or even to explain why she sticks with her husband.

On the other hand, Mallon does impugn the integrity of Elliott Richardson, as an ambitious snob, and Martha Mitchell, as a shrew—with her husband, the former attorney general, subservient to her. On Richardson, however, little is made of the “Saturday night massacre,” of which he was a dramatic victim.

Mallon also speculates on two Watergate questions for which there have been no clear answers. First, he suggests that it was Rose Mary Woods who did erase the 19 minutes of tape, not because it revealed anything significant about the cover-up but because she did not want to reveal to the public a few irrelevant personal comments her boss was making about others. And, second, he repeats as a reason for the break-in that the Republicans wanted to find evidence that Castro’s Cuba was contributing to the Democratic campaign.

Overall, this work did not convey what I expected. It is not a story of the break-in, how it was detected, the specific efforts to cover it up, the impact on the public of Woodward and Bernstein’s series, the development of the government’s case, the efforts by the defense lawyers, the various trials, the tightening noose around the White House, and Nixon’s final decision to resign. There are elements of these present, but not in a cause and effect sequence that helps one to understand the Watergate story as seen from the inside. Indeed, some of the major developments that would interest me occur offstage, and then our characters react to them.

What Mallon does here is suggest the atmosphere that followed the discovery of the break-in. How did these individuals react, and what does it reveal of their character? How organized were they, and how did their actions relate to each other? What does the entire operation reveal about how Washington works? How cynical, how selfish, how pragmatic, how venal, how defensive, how clever, how loyal, how self-pitying were these elected and appointed individuals?

But I question whether this is the purpose of a novel. Is it not to explore character? Rather than a society—although many critics will defend this, and cite precedents. Nixon and LaRue are the candidates here for a deeper portrait, and Mallon is sympathetic to both. Nixon, especially, is a character rather than the usual caricature. There is even a moment when he worries that the phrase “expletive deleted” will suggest far vulgar language than what he actually used. But he never becomes a tragic victim, which a new Shakespeare of the 22nd century might one day create from this situation.

LaRue is a richer character, a shy man from Mississippi who is yearning to return. And he is uncomfortable with his Watergate role. But that role remains separate from the personal family issue that confronts him. And as the reader learns the truth of that issue (or is it merely Mallon’s speculation?) but he himself apparently does not, this does not quite produce a reader’s identification with him that the author seems to have intended.

To sum up, this novel gets too close to the players for me, which clouds any perspective on the overall situation and how these characters interfaced with it. This was a dramatic moment in 20th century American history, and yet there is no sense of that drama. These individuals are too wrapped up in their own fate to be sympathetic, and there are too many of them. There is no North Star among them whom the reader can latch on to. LaRue is merely a spinning planet, and we jump around too much among the others.

I suspect that Mallon would reply: I did not want or intend to write your kind of Watergate novel; I intended to write this one. Because all of these disperate characters were fascinating to me. And because I wanted to show both the humanity and the failings of this particular group of people who were operating inside the Nixon administration at this key moment in history.

Certainly, Mallon takes on interesting subjects; but, as with Henry and Clara, I have ended up disappointed. (June, 2014)