A Delicate Truth

  • John le Carré
  • Viking
  • 432 pp.

A simmering outrage against injustice fuels this high-wire tale of a suspect mission in the murky war on terror.

In A Delicate Truth, John le Carré is far more interested in truth than in delicacy. And the truth makes him angry.

He’s angry about oily bureaucrats, stupid enforcers who unthinkingly do what they’re told and politicians both grandiose and self-deceiving. He’s angry about outsourcing national security to private contractors who translate violence into profit. He’s angry about cartoon versions of legal process that offer the barest pretense of fairness to those caught athwart the anti-terrorism leviathan. And he’s apoplectic that the leviathan leaps into action in response to the zephyr of a hint of a risk and then applies lethal force without regard to foreseeable collateral damage.   

That le Carré brings such passion to his 23rd novel in more than 50 years is a wonder. That his writerly skills are so powerful is a delight.  

The story starts small. A British Foreign Office nabob recruits a bureaucratic lifer to observe and report on a clandestine mission in Gibraltar. Mysterious mercenaries and private contractors infect the effort. Starved of information by his supposed colleagues, the lifer finds his reports are ignored, then he is bundled away from the murky denouement of the mission. Neither he nor the reader can even tell if the effort was the triumph that is proclaimed.

To this point, le Carré keeps his readers in the same fog that surrounds the lifer; even worse, we know only the lifer’s code name. Jumping ahead three years, we emerge from the tunnel of official obfuscation, blinking and squinting at the light. The lifer is revealed to be Sir Christopher Probyn, assigned to the Gibraltar mission after a careful search for a “low flyer” too dim or passive to disrupt the mission’s murky doings. His low-flyer performance has won him a knighthood, a Caribbean posting and a sunny retirement in Cornwall.

But all cannot be well, not in le Carré’s world. A British soldier, haunted by the squalid tragedy that ended the Gibraltar mission, forces that knowledge on Sir Christopher. Together, they resolve to reveal the mission’s squalor and its tragedy, though they are hopelessly overmatched against the leviathan. Only an improbable alliance with a disaffected government high flyer permits le Carré to bring the book careening to a high-tension close with the barest possibility that injustice will be revealed, if never righted.

Le Carré propels his characters down paths of woe lined with acute observations, beginning with the speech of his odious upper-crust bureaucrats. Admitting to an error, one says he “blotted my copybook.” Inquiring after a senior official, another complains, “We seek him here, we seek him there. We tried to get him to come and talk to us the other day. The swine stood us up.”    

The author’s ear works up and down the social scale. “His spoken English,” he writes of a foreign mercenary with a shaved skull, “is so elaborate you’d think it was being marked for accuracy and pronunciation.”  

The journey through a local fair, refracted through Sir Christopher’s pinball mind, is exhausting and revealing:

“Sample piccalilli: tasteless but keep grinning. Smoked salmon paté excellent. Urge Suki [wife] to buy some. She does. Linger over Gardening Club’s floral celebration. Suzanna [wife] knows every flower by its first name. Bump into MacIntyres, two of life’s dissatisfied customers. Ex-tea-planter George keeps a loaded rifle at his bedside for the day the masses assemble at his gates. His wife, Lydia, bores for the village. Advance on them with outstretched arms.”

The delicate truths in the novel are ones of character, particularly of trust. Allowing them virtually no physical interaction, le Carré still conveys a young man and young woman falling in love through the powerful realization that they trust one another. Sir Christopher and the disillusioned soldier, though from worlds apart, also form an unexpected bond of trust.  

Such episodes of trust are the only balm le Carré has to offer in a war on terror fought in shadow by grasping humans who too often go unobserved and unsupervised.

David O. Stewart is the author of several works of history. His first novel, The Lincoln Deception, will be released in late August. He is the president of the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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