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.’”