A Delicate Truth

From Absolute Friends (2003) on -- through The Mission Song (2006), A Most Wanted Man (2008), Our Kind of Traitor (2010), and now A Delicate Truth -- John le Carré's novels have increasingly reflected their author's conviction that both Great Britain and the United States have been evolving toward fascism. The books' plots have involved the rigged state of perpetual war and its attendant blights of secrecy, fear, extra-judicial apprehension, imprisonment, and killing, an accommodating and/or pusillanimous press, lickspittle government functionaries, and the licentious congress of business and the government. But even to one who shares le Carré's bleak outlook, A Delicate Truth seems crippled as a work of fiction by the weight of its author's dismay. Less than a novel -- or at least less than the sort of novel le Carré is capable of -- it is an instructive mock-up of the insalubrious effects of the privatized "war on terror."

That's the bad news; the good is that, despite its inadequacies, the book still displays le Carré's gift for summoning characters out of social types with a few deadly swipes of his pen and a mimic's ability to nail down their personalities and worldviews with a few passages of speech. Indeed, A Delicate Truth serves up such a bouncing bevy of bullies, trimmers, and cynics as to bring wicked joy to the gloomiest heart. Among them is a penny-ante junior minister, Fergus Quinn, MP, "Fergie to the world…a Scottish brawler, a self-styled bête intellectuelle of the New Labour stable." With "close-cropped ginger hair and quick greedy eyes set in a pugilist's face," he has a "carefully nurtured Glaswegian accent." Folded into Quinn's man-of-the-people bluntness is the necessary ingredient of Blairish waffle, such terms as "core values" and "fully appreciative of your concerns." Naturally, steeped as he is in the doctrines of market efficiencies, Quinn holds an MBA view of national defense: "Private defense contractors…. Name of the game these days. War's gone corporate, in case you haven't noticed. Standing professional armies are a bust. Top-heavy, under-equipped, one brigadier for every dozen boots on the ground, and cost a mint."  

Quinn has a scheme up his sleeve involving the "extraordinary rendition," "abstraction" or "exfiltration" -- kidnapping, in a word -- of an arms supplier whose clients are terrorists. It's a bit ticklish, a black op, actually, to be executed on what is considered British soil. The miscreant is supposedly holed up in Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, and will be snatched by British Special Forces, the men temporarily discharged for form's sake (i.e., deniability) and handed over to mercenaries just offshore working for an outfit called Ethical Outcomes, the brainchild of a shady operator called Jay Crispin ("Third son of a posh Anglo-American family. Best schools. Sandhurst at second attempt. Ten years of bad soldiering. Retirement at forty. We're told voluntary, but one doubts it. Bit of City. Dumped. Bit of spying. Dumped. Sidles up alongside our burgeoning terror industry. Rightly observes that defence contractors are on a roll. Smells the money. Goes for it. Hullo, Ethical Outcomes.")  The whole business, which includes sweeteners for Quinn among others, is being funded by a wealthy American right-wing evangelical Christian. Also involved on the ground is a British diplomatic lifer, code name Paul Anderson. This is Kit Probyn, late fifties, "a reliable has-been," an "honest-to-God Foreign Service dobbin," and honorable to the point of near imbecility, who hasn't a clue about what's really going on.

It's not easy for the reader to see why Probyn is really necessary to the caper (for which he is rewarded with a Caribbean commissionership and a knighthood), except if he were not, the scales could not fall from his eyes and the plot, such as it is, wouldn't get off the ground. Even so, it needs another career diplomat, young Toby Bell, Quinn's private secretary, to apply jumper cables. Toby, who has expunged "the brand marks" of his humble-ish birth from his tongue and his manner, is a man with prospects. He has been the protégé of a slippery Foreign Office éminence grise who has schooled him in diplomatic discretion or what a layperson might call cynicism. Still, Toby, who has been increasingly left in the dark by Quinn, is not, despite the lessons of the master, bereft of a sense of duty. He takes it into his head to record Quinn's secret meeting with Probyn, using an ancient recording device that, to the reader's surprise, still works. After some extracurricular sleuthing on Toby's part and in the fullness of time (three years), one of the Special Forces operatives shows up to spill the beans about what really went down at Gibraltar: a fatal fiasco. Toby and Kit -- and eventually Kit's attractive physician daughter -- begin to drill their way through layers of cover-up, including that of another murder.

This is a plot that must be viewed through a layer of gauze to blur its makeshift quality, but what is palpable throughout is the grid of powerful interests that increasingly operate with impunity in our world, a presence Toby calls Britain's "Deep State": "the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who [are] cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster." What kept me reading, however, are le Carré's characters, deftly painted with the shades of their social class and ideological markings set out with the author's customary high-spirited brio.

 

About the Columnist
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

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