By John Le Carré
( Viking Adult; First Edition edition, May 7, 2013)
John Le Carré, the creator of a long and illustrious string of spy novels that exemplify the "paranoid" school of thriller, plunges further into the darkness of paranoia in his latest novel, A Delicate Truth. But unlike the fantasies of truthers, birthers and other whack jobs who think they are besieged by a global cabal of high-level schemers, Le Carré's conspiracy is as believable as a document released by Wikileaks and as frightening as the fact that the world's most powerful military machine once invaded a tin-pot dictatorship in Iraq based solely on falsehoods.
In earlier books like Smiley's People, The Man Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Le Carré conjured a world with two distinct sides: us and them. The protagonist might run afoul of corrupt individuals on his own team -- as George Smiley did in Tinker, Tailor, for example -- but they were invariably turncoats working for "the other side:" the Soviets, Chinese, East Germans, Czech Internal Security, whatever.
In his new, post-Cold War formulation, the bad guys are worse than you could imagine -- and there is no other side. The evil they do is as functionaries of the protagonist's own government -- and for the benefit of shadowy corporate shot-callers whose patriotic interest is solely the content of the national treasury.
The plot is sordid and anything but simple: A Delicate Truth, is the counterpart to the official lie that has been used to cover up an intelligence catastrophe that occurred on the British colony of Gibraltar during the Gordon Brown era. A team of British special ops soldiers has been assigned to work with a U.S. intelligence-for-hire corporation whose personnel -- like most mercenaries -- are thugs, goons and flim-flam artists. Together they are to snatch a terrorist who is supposedly temporarily sheltering on the island to conclude an arms deal.
The delicate truth is that the terrorist is not on the island and never has been. The entire scenario was cooked up as a money-making scam by the suede shoe artists who run the U.S. intelligence corporation. The "extraordinary rendition" that is planned puts innocent people at risk -- and two of them end up dead as a result.
Overseeing this misadventure is Kitt Probyn, a past-his-prime Foreign Office deskie who has no operational experience whatsoever. While Probyn believes he has been tapped to monitor the op and issue the go, no-go order, he is actually there as window dressing because the British military would not commit combat troops to a "rendition" operation that is not putatively under the control of the foreign office.
The operation -- which was predicated on falsehoods and intelligence as fraudulent as the stockpiled WMD used to justify the invasion of Iraq -- goes horribly awry in a fashion that Probyn only learns about long after the fact. To keep him busy and quiet, he is given a luxury posting in the Caribbean and later knighted for exemplary service to the crown.
Meanwhile, Toby Bell, the private secretary for a governmental minister who is one of the originators of the plot, stumbles across traces of the Gibraltar operation by surreptitiously tape recording a meeting between the minister, Probyn and a mysterious arms lobbyist named Jay Crispin. He saves the recording and when he tries to raise the issue with his foreign office mentor, he is warned off. Despite this, the clues he gleaned from the recording haunt him for years afterward.
Eventually Probyn, now retired and living in a small community in Wales, accidentally runs into the commander of the British unit that worked the Gibraltar operation and begins to learn what actually happened. But just when he and the soldier are supposed to meet to memorialize their recollections, the soldier disappears. Probyn receives a call from a psychiatrist at a clinic that treats shell-shocked vets telling him the man is mentally ill and has been committed. Unsatisfied, the retired foreign office bureaucrat makes contact with Bell.
Together the two push forward, looking for evidence of what has happened. At every turn they are sabotaged, either by government personnel or members of the American black ops team. For its last quarter, the story rips past at a furious pace, leading to a bleak and disturbing climax which, while not unexpected, is nicely set up by everything that has gone before.
The story is vintage Le Carré with characters whose personalities are so clearly portrayed you can almost visualize them in your mind's eye (I, for example, quickly settled on the British actor Bill Nighy as Kitt Probyn's doppleganger; if Nighy does not get the part in any film made from the novel, the casting director should be sacked!)
The plot, given the recent history of botched intelligence operations, the use of mercenaries and gun thugs as an adjunct to official military force, and the reliance on mendacity by governmental policy makers, seems like something you might read about in your morning paper.
It would be easy for Le Carré to rest on his laurels and continue to crank out old school spy thrillers set in the Europe of the 1970s and 1980s. No doubt the stories would be as well-written as his classics, and quite as entertaining to read. There is little question they would keep the author's bank accounts topped up nicely and please a large number of his long-time fans.
But it is equally clear the author would find this safe route unsatisfying. He is mad as hell about what his country's government -- and that of the United States -- is up to, and revolted by the greasy corruption of the private spy enterprises that have popped up around the world to facilitate it.
Writing about the fraudulent secret courts that ostensibly "oversee" our increasingly privately-run, for-profit spy services in the Guardian newspaper last June, Le Carré said, "Does anyone remember how we got dragged into the Iraq war – apart obviously from the dodgy dossier composed with the complicity of MI6? We went to war on the strength of information supplied by two ingenious fabricators."
"Yet, when it came to the vote in parliament, what was being whispered to the doubters in the corridors? Let me guess: 'If you'd seen the papers I've seen' – spoken with menace and conviction, and no doubt a hint of honest fear – 'you'd know which door to go through!' "
In fact, these are almost exactly the words recently used by U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein recently when President Obama and his minions were hell-bent on bombing the Syrians to punish Bashar al-Assad for allegedly gassing his country's rebels. The key evidence was -- and still is -- entirely classified and unavailable to the U.S. citizens who will have to pay $1.5 million for each of the missiles to be used and provide the live bodies for combat when the bombing inevitably proves inadequate, but Feinstein and Pelosi insisted that "if we could see what they had seen," we would willingly join the rush to war.
Who knows where that secret evidence Pelosi and Feinstein claim to have seen came from, how it was obtained or what it actually shows? No matter, they told us. "Trust us -- steps are being taken by those in a position to know."
This is precisely the sort of official mendaciousness Le Carré warns us about in his latest novel. His readers are the better for his caveat.