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Fiction In 'A Delicate Truth,' spy master John le Carre shows he can still conjure up a world of intrigue

  • Published Friday, June 14, 2013, at 4:45 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, June 16, 2013, at 7:31 a.m.

“A Delicate Truth” by John le Carre (Viking, 310 pages, $28.95)

John le Carre is widely regarded as the master of spy novelists, and he has extended his career beyond the end of the Cold War, during which he wrote such classics as “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”

“A Delicate Truth” is his 23rd novel, and it doesn’t disappoint. Always addressing the current climate of political intrigue, here le Carre unravels the threads of a counter-terrorist operation carried out outside official British circles. And here, as in his other books, he shows the human cost and the moral quandaries of those who try to do the right thing.

Toby Bell is the private secretary to Fergus Quinn, a minister of the British Foreign Office. Over time, he discovers that Quinn is holding secret meetings with one Jay Crispin, a private defense contractor. Together they plan an operation code-named Wildlife, which later is carried out on the British crown colony of Gibraltar. The goal, we learn, is to capture and abduct a high-value jihadist arms buyer. The operation is funded by a wealthy American evangelical.

Three years later, we meet Sir Christopher (“Kit”) Probyn, a former British diplomat who took part in Operation Wildlife as Quinn’s “red telephone.” Soon after the operation, Probyn was posted to the Caribbean and later knighted. Now retired in Cornwall, he encounters Jeb, a Special Forces soldier who also took part in Wildlife. Jeb tells him just how bad that operation went and reveals something Probyn did not know.

Bell becomes involved and soon is enmeshed in an attempt to reveal the delicate truth about the Foreign Office’s complicity in murder and cover-up. Will he succeed, and will he survive?

Beyond the enjoyable suspense of le Carre’s tale is his usual creation of interesting characters. He paints them, for the most part, with detail and the complexity of competing motivations.

He has an ax to grind, though, as his often biting language shows. One character describes the failed operation as “a rabble of American mercenaries, aided by British Special Forces in disguise and funded by the Republican evangelical right. And for good measure, the whole thing masterminded by a shady defence contractor in cahoots with a leftover group of fire-breathing neocoms from our fast-dissolving New Labour leadership.”

He makes other digs. Crispin defends the collateral damage from Wildlife by comparing it to U.S. actions: “Give me a Predator drone and a couple of Hellfire missiles and I’ll show you what real collateral damage looks like.”

Toby later describes Crispin as “your normal, rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke suit, with an unappeasable craving for money, power and respect, regardless of where he got them from.”

As with many spy novels, “A Delicate Truth” captures us not only with the suspense of its plot but with information about the kinds of things going on in our world that we may not be aware of. And those things aren’t often pleasant. Toby describes them as “sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.”

But le Carre is more than a typical spy novelist. His dissection of human nature, his language, his avoidance of cliches and easy plot devices set him apart. His dialogue is particularly enjoyable to read. And we get to learn some British (or is it Cornish?) idiom, such as, “One of Mrs. Marlow’s pies will do him a power.” Or, “Dicky floorboard here, so watch your step.”

“A Delicate Truth” is enjoyable but also disturbing. It will make you angry at powerful people’s indifference to anyone but themselves but also inspire you with the courage of the few who sacrifice to try to bring some justice to the world.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton.

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