John Le Carre: A Delicate Truth

Every review of John Le Carre’s post-Cold War books questions whether the writer had problems finding topics after the fall of Communism. His first couple of books were fairly mundane mysteries, but with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, he found his stride. But rather than these early books being about the Cold War, all of Le Carre’s books seem to be about individuals crushed by larger forces of politics and ideology. Whether these forces are political or economic or criminal, they are irresistible.

A Delicate Truth, from 2013 is about a mission gone wrong in Gibraltar and the subsequent attempts to break the cover-up. The mission itself has been run by a private company working at the heart of the British government. Le Carre portrays how the modern state’s reality has allowed some dubious people access to power.

Several reviews related two characters in the book, a new labour minister and his corporate ally, to Liam Fox and Adam Weritty. The representative of Ethical Outcomes, a mercenary organisation, reminded me of Dominic Cummings, a similarly unconventional figure who lurks at the edge of power. There are echoes further back, with the SAS assassinations in Gibraltar in 1988, and the death of Dr David Kelly.

The plot has a pattern Le Carre has used before – the action in the book is in the first chapter, with the book being the unravelling of what that action means, and what should happen. It begins with a mission to capture a jihadist leader that was said to be a success. One of those involved, diplomat Kit Probyn, is driven by frustration that what he describes as “the best thing I ever did in my entire career” turns out to be a lie.

The book is driven by conversations between characters, and Le Carre makes that fresh without being flashy. A fair amount of tension comes from messages not being replied to, and the silences between characters.

Like many of Le Carre’s later books, there is a polemical edge to the story. As well as attacking the risks of public/private partnerships in government, he also talks about the dangers of the secret courts set up to deal with terrorism. One of the main characters is told clearly what will happen to them if they risk exposing government secrets:

 “…you – the claimant, as he or she is rather whimsically called – would I’m afraid be banished from the court while the government presented its case to the judge without the inconvenience of a direct challenge by you or your representatives. And under the rules currently being discussed, the very fact that a hearing is being conducted might of itself be kept secret. As of course, in that case, would the judgement.’”

Two recent Le Carre books

A few years back, I set out to read and blog about John Le Carre’s books in chronological order. Like many projects of mine, it sort of stalled. I blogged about Call for the dead and A Murder of Quality, read a few others, then got distracted.

A lucky find in a charity shop on 2020’s first work-day launched me into reading Agent Running in the Field. This was hyped in the papers as le Carre’s Brexit novel, which does the book something of a dis-service. It’s not a political diatribe, but a lovely character piece, written from the POV of a washed-up spy.

Le Carre gets the main character’s voice perfectly and we get a good sense of his privilege and self-image. Nat’s faults are obvious, without any contempt or mockery from Le Carre. The story begins when Nat meets a young man called Ed who challenges him to a game of badminton. They begin playing regularly and, over post-game pints, Ed launches tirades about the state of the world. Like many of Le Carre’s characters, Nat comes to find himself threatened by powerful forces, trapped between duty and doing the right thing. There is a fantastic sense of impending disaster as the book heads to its conclusion.

I also read The Pigeon Tunnel, which is a non-fiction collection of pieces about Le Carre’s life. I felt churlish for not liking this more. Most of the pieces are excellent, and there are some great anecdotes, such as meetings with Yasser Arafat and Rupert Murdoch. Le Carre repeatedly explains that he did very little secret work, but has several adventures because people assumes he is still involved in this world. Still, I found myself wishing the book had a stronger narrative, and realised later that a lot of the pieces were reprints of previously published works.

It was still worth reading, particularly for details of the lengths to which Le Carre went to for his research. A couple of glimpses of that world stood out. One piece was about his loathing of the traitor Kim Philby, in which he described “a type of entitled Briton who, while deploring the sins of imperialism, attaches himself to the next great imperial power in the delusion that he can steer its destiny.

Another piece talked about a mole in the British Communist Party which had about 25,000 members; Le Carre claims that it “had to be held together by MI5 informants”.

John le Carré Bucket List 2: A Murder of Quality

Yesterday evening I was in Dublin airport, on the way back from a business trip. I had a few books to read (including Naomi Foyle‘s new novel) but I felt jittery and a little burned-out. I needed something light, so instead I settled down to read John le Carré’s second novel, A Murder of Quality.

Similar to the previous book, A Call for the Dead, this is a mystery – although this one has no connection to espionage. A woman in fear of her life contacts a newspaper. The editor calls in George Smiley, a colleague from the war who has now retired. Smiley learns that the woman has since been murdered and sets off to Carne school where he is drawn into the investigation. This recruitment of a retired spy reminded me a little of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The mystery itself isn’t particularly exciting; there’s the obvious suspect, the red herring and the culprit. On the way we get some satirical social comment. The school’s masters are grotesque snobs, unprepared for the changes coming in post-war Britain.

The rigorous social codes and how characters are classified as being the ‘right sort’ or not are terrifying. Arch comments are made about Smiley’s lack of a dinner jacket when invited to supper. One character is admired because “she did such clever things with the same dress”. Smiley doesn’t like this world, but is at home in it.

The most fascinating thing in the book are the descriptions of George Smiley; physically uncharismatic, he induces great love and faith in the people who know him. He is described by one character as “the most forgettable man she had ever met” with clothes “which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him”. Another character describes him as “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for. Had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.”

We see how traumatised Smiley is by his experiences: “so many men learnt strength during the war, learnt terrible things, and put aside their knowledge with a shudder when it ended.” Despite being very good at his job, Smiley is repelled by this, having “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin”. He takes little pride in solving the mystery.

I wouldn’t have read this book were I not reading the complete Le Carré. Like 1971’s the Naive and Sentimental Lover, if suffers in comparison to the spy novels – although the tone and ambience are interesting in places. Next up, however, is the Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

John le Carré Bucket List Part 1: Call for the Dead

I’m not very good at bucket lists. I imagine other people’s ones are stuffed full of parachutes, tightropes and racetracks. Mine has several mundane things among the ambitious goals. These include reading all the novels of Iain M Banks and John LeCarré. As Douglas Coupland once wrote, “There’s a lot to be said for having a small manageable dream.

Having a simple goal on my bucket list means I can easily work towards completing it, and this week I started on Le Carré’s complete works. I first got into his books while I was a teenager, mainly through the famous novels – the Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the Karla trilogy. I loved the weary cynicism of the books, and how they felt like they were plotted backwards; they started with a climactic event, then followed the after-effects.

After the cold war, people speculated that Le Carré’s work would suffer. Instead his books have focused on often-forgotten, ongoing aspects of espionage. For example, Our Kind of Traitor examined accusations that financial institutions laundered illegal money during the financial crisis when little money was available to loan. I’ve missed several of the later books, so reading the full set is a chance to fill in the gaps. It’s also an opportunity to approach some books I’ve loved as a different person.

Le Carré’s first book is set in a very different world. Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, just 16 years after World War 2 and the Holocaust. It’s set in a very different Britain. London is still a working city rather than the shiny thing it has become; the Beatles are in Hamburg, yet to sign to Decca, the Swinging Sixties some time off. It’s not a state of the nation book, but the country it describes does feel very different.

The book opens with a description of George Smiley: “When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.” Smiley has an uncharismatic appearance, and is often compared to animals, “His appearance seemed to reflect this discomfort in a kind of physical recession which made him more hunched and frog-like than ever. He blinked more, and acquired the nickname of ‘Mole’.” He’s a friendly, competent and loyal chap, but strangers often dislike him, “a little fat man, rather gloomy” as one sees him.

Smiley was an academic, and approaches his intelligence work in that style. He was recruited from Oxford, and knew by sight half of his interview panel for the ‘Overseas Committee for Academic research’. He had a distinguished wartime career, running agents in Nazi Germany, although the book’s brief description on this time focuses on fear and not bravery: “He had never guessed it was possible to be frightened for so long“. The new threat of Russia has left him on the shelf, and the collegiate, academic version of his days in the service is gone: “the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead is a murder mystery. Smiley undertakes the routine interrogation of Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office worker. The interview is friendly and positive, but the next day Fennan kills himself, saying his career is ruined. Smiley is sent to speak to the widow Elsa, to see if he can work out what happened. While at the house the phone rings; thinking the call is for him, he takes it – a reminder from the local exchange, which had been placed by Fennan before he took his life. This leads Smiley to question the death, slowly unravelling something more complicated than a suicide.

The book describes the contradictions of Smiley’s role in a bureaucracy, “the unreality of containing a human tragedy in a three-page report“. At one point Elsa attacks him for the way the establishment drops bombs but “don’t come down here and look at the blood, or hear the scream“. She is unaware of the pitiful fear in which Smiley spent the war, and he won’t tell her any different. He struggles to maintain a core of humanity while, as Elsa puts it, “the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment“.

The book is interesting but didn’t quite feel like a Le Carré book. While Smiley spends a lot of time away from the action in a hospital bed, he does encounter a mysterious assailant. Despite some beautiful passages, the writing is clumsy in places – Smiley sinks into unconsciousness to end scenes, and the plot is dumped on the reader in an explanation near the end. But Call for the Dead did include one of my favourite tropes of spy novels – the interview with Fennan was conducted in a park while feeding the ducks.I had a sense of deja-vu as I read, the bleak London seeming familiar. It turns out that I read it back in 2011. I’m not sure it justifies reading twice and I might not have finished it, were it not the first book in the series.

Next up: A Murder of Quality, which I’m fairly sure I’ve not read before. It sounds like another mystery, but let’s see how it goes. I know there are some great books to come, so I can be patient.