John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) created a new kind of espionage fiction and set a standard only ever equalled by le Carré himself in some of the other books featuring the mild and clever agent George Smiley: like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Honourable Schoolboy (1997). The film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with Richard Burton in one of his best roles, captured the chilling essence of the book, and the television adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People starring Alec Guinness won deserved acclaim.
I shared the admiration for le Carré up to this point but subsequently went off him. I found The Russia House (1989) and The Night Manager (1993) dull and much later novels like The Constant Gardener mannered and over-written.
So I approached A Delicate Truth with caution, fearing to encounter those convoluted sentences in the later books that suggested le Carré was trying to emulate Henry James, whose bloodless style I deplore. I need not have worried. There is nothing of that manner in this latest book, indeed quite the reverse. The prose is straightforward with very few flourishes and those that are there work. A well-controlled telegramese at times pushes the narrative along at a brisk pace. It’s not a great book but it is a good one.
Kim Probyn, long-time diplomat, is recruited by the Foreign Minister in the morally bankrupt (after the Iraq invasion) New Labour government to be his eyes and ears in a top-secret operation on Gibraltar. The operation, a highly unorthodox piece of American- and defence-consultant-mounted rendition, is deemed a success and Probyn is rewarded by a plum posting and a knighthood.
In fact the operation has been a failure, with collateral damage. As this is slowly revealed to Probyn it is clear that the big lie, a cover-up and concealment of the cover-up have been perpetrated and held in place by bribery and intimidation.
Enter Toby Bell, Foreign Office high flyer, who gets wind of the Minister’s involvement, pursues it and uncovers evidence which, if revealed, would damage the British intelligence and diplomatic services and the network of defence consultants and contractors these services are harnessed to.
Bell joins with Probyn and a fast-moving plot-driven novel bowls along. Le Carré is a master of Englishness. His descriptions of country life (he lives in Cornwall where many of the scenes are set) and city stresses are compelling. An account of a bucolic country ‘fayre’ is a brilliant set piece and while never overdone, le Carré’s eye for London life – clothes, clubs, architecture and idiom – is acute.
The main characters are satisfyingly well-developed and if a few of the secondary players – an amoral international security facilitator, a compromised intelligence agent – are sketchy, that’s genre fiction. My main criticism is that the collateral damage, tragic though it is, doesn’t quite have the weight to trigger the reactions to it. But I may have become hard-hearted. Eight out of ten.
John Le Carré A Delicate Truth, Viking, 2013, PB, 320pp, $29.95
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