Shady characters and politics


John le Carré entertains with his lyrical style in his intriguing suspense novel.

In A Delicate Truth, John le Carré plunges us into Operation Wildlife, a secret anti-terrorist strike being staged in Gibraltar by an odd mix of British Special Forces and American mercenaries. The British diplomat on the ground is a curious choice: aging, well-traveled Kit Probyn, surprised to have been summoned after a career in mundane economic roles.

Wildlife is a success, flawless, Probyn is told. Unless, of course, it isn’t. This being le Carre, nothing is ever simple.

Three years later, Probyn, now comfortably retired to the countryside, is drawn back to Wildlife by a chance encounter that probably wasn’t. All didn’t play out as it seemed, he’s told by a relic from the past.

Onstage steps “compulsively ambitious” civil servant Toby Bell. Blithe and earnest, he’s startled to learn that he didn’t know about the operation even though he served at the time as private secretary to a certain overbearing Minister Fergus Quinn, a “marooned Blairite of the new Gordon Brown era.”

More shady characters emerge, and soon Bell will face career- and health-humbling choices, and will have to figure out what to make of Probyn’s alluring daughter, Emily. It’s all an entertaining mix, and le Carre gives himself plenty of openings to sound off on the politically suspect and morally dangerous failings of Americans, as is his wont of late.

Yet this small book requires, at times, a stupefyingly large suspension of disbelief. Not only is a British minister in cahoots with a private military contractor, the exquisitely named Ethical Outcomes Inc., but that contractor has the heads of foreign intelligence agencies in its pocket, too. Nor does it seem likely that no reporter has thought to look into that minister or a certain top-secret military operation conducted on British soil.

Le Carré is, as always, a lyrical writer. He tosses off character sketches with precision. Of an Englishman, he writes, “The demeanour — he cannot say quite why — unmistakably British, perhaps because the hand gestures, while brisk and economic, are in some way inhibited.”

In the end, though, I was left wondering whether there could have been a bigger palette for le Carre, now 81, to display his considerable talents. I left A Delicate Truth informed by the banality of evil, intrigued by a story that flops, Mobius strip-like, into and onto itself and yes, eagerly turning pages to find out what happens next.

But it’s like Daniel Craig tooling down an Alpine byway at the wheel of a lime-green Prius. Something doesn’t quite fit.

Alex D.B. McCabe reviewed this book for Bloomberg News.

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