A DELICATE TRUTH
By John le Carre
Viking, $18.95, 320 pages
I confess to being a fan of John le Carre, both for his skill at storytelling and for the razor-sharp characters he creates. Laser portraits of even secondary characters make the reader believe he actually knows people like that.
I also like and admire David Cornwell, the man behind the nom de plume. Unlike many writers of crime and espionage literature, Mr. Cornwell has walked the walk. He worked for both Britain's MI-5 (domestic counter-intelligence) and MI-6 (foreign intelligence) cracking safes, tapping telephones, running agents and other covert ops. Indeed, he was so employed when he wrote his first two books, "Call for the Dead" (1961) and "A Murder of Quality" (1962), both of them worth a read, by the way.
But one of the hallmarks of a le Carre book is its topicality. Considering the long timeline it takes to bring any book from conception through research and the hard slog of writing, Mr. Cornwell has been remarkably prescient in spotting trends and the ever-shifting landscape of the international spy game.
So it is with "A Delicate Truth." Unlike that portrayed in so many of Mr. le Carre's early novels, a spy operation in today's world is no longer a gentleman's game carried on by small agencies of highly educated, usually aristocratic, professionals who are both ruthless in the interests of their nation's security but also wedded to a certain set of mutual rules of engagement between their adversaries and themselves. Think of Allen Dulles and the early Ivy League cadre in the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Today, independent contractors carry the heavy water for most Western intel services and while this has the benefit of expanding the reach of budget-strapped governments, it also pushes a dangerous amount of control beyond their oversight. Even powerful nations find themselves swamped by the war on international terror that is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the global trade in drugs and arms — often weapons of state policy used by our adversaries.
The plotline of this story is as fresh as today's headlines about overreaching spy agencies, the private contractors who serve those agencies and what happens to whistleblowers who try to reveal just who it is behind the curtain twiddling the dials.
But instead of Edward Snowden, Mr. le Carre gives us Sir Christopher "Kit" Probyn whose mediocre career as a Foreign Office diplomat had ended after a nondescript ambassadorship to one of Britain's former island colonies in the Caribbean. He got his knighthood, his pension and decamped to the life of a rural squire in darkest Cornwall. Unlike the archetypal George Smiley of other le Carre tales, Kit tends to let his emotions take hold of him; also, he finds retirement boring.
So when he is summoned back to harness by a thuggish minister-on-the-make in the dismal days of Gordon Brown's new Labor government, he leaps at the chance. All he is told is he is to be the overseer of a combined Anglo-American operation to snatch a most wanted terrorist figure who is to be lured to the British outpost on Gibraltar. An American private intel contractor (Ethical Outcomes Inc. of Houston) is running the operation. It is an awful failure from the start. The target never shows, shots are fired, innocent civilians are killed. The operation disappears from all records. Kit returns to Cornwall to resume his sad existence. The story then picks up speed when, three years later, Kit is inveigled by others who were involved to turn whistleblower. The catastrophes that engulf them all is a real cliffhanger.
The one flaw is one that is common to all of Mr. le Carre's books. David Cornwell positively despises Americans and particularly those connected with the U.S. intelligence services. His indictment at base is one shared by many Britons of the left and is fueled in part by the newspapers they read (the Guardian) and it lies mainly in the undeniable fact that we are definitely not British. Not only are we far too polyethnic but we just refuse to order our society along proper British lines.
The result is that while Mr. Cornwell is unsurpassed in drawing acute portraits of his own national characters, his Americans are cartoons. One of the main villains in the story here is a wealthy woman who bankrolls Ethical Outcomes. She is a Texan (of course), coarse and bumptious (what else?), a Tea Party loony (sigh) and, most damning of all, a born-again Christian. His treatment of U.S. spy services is equally cliche-ridden.
I am sure Mr. Cornwell despises Americans because he told me so. Once, back in the early 1980s, I was introduced to him in a smoky Fleet Street pub frequented by journalists by an Australian newsman who had served as one of Mr. le Carre's stock characters in several books. While he was cordial enough to me at the start, as the night wore on he became ever more bitter about America and its clumsy, self-indulgent national character which had given the world the Vietnam War, race riots, Richard Nixon and a host of other plagues.
He did have one legitimate complaint that I recall. In 1965, he had sold the film rights to MGM Studios for his blockbuster "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" for the staggering sum in those days of $50,000. But the sale contract prevented him from ever using a character named George Smiley in a future book. To buy Smiley back from MGM cost Cornwell the same $50,000; actually it cost him more out of pocket because his agent had taken his 10 percent commission off the top.
Mr. Cornwell's personal flaws aside, "A Delicate Truth" is still a ripping yarn in the le Carre tradition and well worth a summertime read on a shady porch with refreshments at hand.
James Srodes is the author of "Allen Dulles: Master of Spies" (Regnery, 2000).