A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré
The 23rd novel of spy fiction’s master storyteller is full of simmering rage
A Delicate Truth
John le Carré
“Are Toby and Giles spies?” asks the narrator early on in John le Carré’s A D elicate Truth . “Not at all! They are blue-chip British career diplomats who have found themselves, like many others, at the trading tables of the free world’s vast intelligence marketplace.”
The question and its immediate answer are instructive in our reading of le Carré’s 23rd novel. The author has been synonymous with the genre since 1963, when The Spy Who Came in f rom the Cold , his third book, redefined the parameters of the spy narrative. His novels became progressively more ambitious, easing away from the template established by Ian Fleming and his lurid James Bond tales of guns, girls and individual heroism to create a more sophisticated appreciation of the complexities of intelligence-gathering during the cold war and beyond.
Recently Ian McEwan described le Carré as “perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the 20th century in Britain”. McEwan, who last year published Sweet Tooth , a literary homage to the spy novel, claimed that le Carré “has easily burst out of being a genre writer” and called for him to be awarded the Man Booker Prize.
Which brings us back to Toby and Giles. Are they spies? Is A Delicate Truth a spy novel or does its ambition exceed the genre’s grasp?
The answer to both questions, at the risk of sounding excessively Smileyan, is yes and no. The novel opens with a clandestine operation in Gibraltar, Operation Wildlife, in which a small group of British army commandos work with a force of “private defence contractors” to kidnap an international arms dealer.
The British aspect of the operation is monitored on the ground by “Paul Anderson”, the pseudonym of an experienced civil servant who serves as the eyes and ears of Fergus Quinn, a junior minister “recently acquired from Defence”. The fog of war descends. Mistakes are made. The operation degenerates into chaos. The consequences of that chaos serve as the narrative backbone to the rest of the novel.
Toby Bell, a promising young diplomat who has served tours in Berlin, Madrid and Cairo under the wing of Giles Oakley, is appointed private secretary to Fergus Quinn. Sourcing background material on his new boss, Toby hears rumours of a botched operation, extraordinary rendition and the outsourcing of national defence to “public-private enterprise”.
In a parallel narrative, “Paul Anderson”, aka Sir Christopher “Kit” Probyn, is enjoying a well-earned retirement in Cornwall when he is confronted by Jeb Owens, one of the British soldiers involved in Operation Wildlife. Disowned by the army, Jeb has tales to tell of the murder of a woman and her child during the ill-fated expedition to the Rock.
What follows is an engrossing tale of corruption, subterfuge, double-dealing and triple-crosses, all of it enlivened by a deliciously cynical sense of humour. The mercenaries who collaborate with the British forces during Operation Wildlife are employed by a US-based private defence contractor called Ethical Outcomes. The operation’s target is referred to as “your jihadist pimpernel par excellence”. A well-heeled mercenary is described as “a trader in small wars”.
Throughout, the unseen narrator employs a jocose tone that pokes fun at the spy genre’s conventions, as Giles’s and Kit’s inquiries are rebuffed at every turn, not by threats and violence but by inoffensively polite advice, delivered with impeccably polished public-school manners.
The thin veneer of comic frivolity highlights the simmering anger beneath. There’s a polemical strain to A Delicate Truth , as le Carré rails against the “bent lobbyists and arms salesmen beavering away at the fault lines between the defence industry and procurement”.
He returns repeatedly to the notion of “public-private enterprise” and the outsourcing of national defence, and the subversion of democracy by agents of the state on behalf of private enterprise in the pursuit of profit. Are the British secret services employing Ethical Outcomes, or is Ethical Outcomes deciding policy at the heart of the British intelligence-gathering system?
These are worthy topics for the contemporary novel, spy fiction or otherwise, and le Carré gives us a satisfying twist on the traditional spy in Toby Bell. “No evil genius controlled him, no paymaster, provocateur or sinister manipulator armed with an attaché case stuffed with hundred-dollar bills was waiting round the corner . . . He was in that sense the most feared creature of our contemporary world: a solitary decider.”
Toby, steeped in old Labour’s politics, is keen “to make a difference”, to “take part in his country’s discovery of its true identity”.
When Toby embarks on an innocent’s search for truth, he is essentially spying against his country – or, at least, the current apparatus of the state – on behalf of its people.
But while le Carré gives us memorable characters in Toby , the genial old duffer Kit Probyn and the conscience-stricken soldier Jeb Owens, the novel lacks balance. The villains – the hawkish Fergus Quinn at the ministry of defence, the lobbyist Jay Crispin and his strong-arm facilitator Elliott – are largely of a piece and given little by way of motivation beyond greed for money, power or both.
Quinn is shrewdly drawn, but in a novel concerned with the place of ideology in international geopolitics he is curiously vacuous. That may well be the truth of a particular breed of New Labour politicians, but unvarnished truth does not necessarily lend itself to compelling fiction.
That said, there is no doubting le Carré’s sincerity in A Delicate Truth . In his acknowledgments, the author pays particular tribute to Carne Ross, the foreign-office civil servant who, during the Butler Review, challenged the former British prime minister Tony Blair’s assertions that the Iraq war was legally justified and “who by his example demonstrated the perils of speaking a delicate truth to power”.
In the story itself, a “convenient suicide” arrives like a hammer blow; the offhand way in which the career diplomat Toby refers to “the secret police” is devastating.
The simmering rage is offset by occasional moments of poignant introspection (“Life is what you’re left with, really,” reflects the abandoned soldier Jeb), but for the most part A Delicate Truth is a bracing, powerful and sobering novel that serves as a none-too-delicate truth to power.
It is a spy novel, certainly. Whether it or le Carré needs to “burst beyond the genre” in order to win the Booker is a question for another day.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. His most recent novel, Slaughter’s Hound , published by Liberties Press, is shortlisted for the Goldsboro Award.