John Le Carré is one of a select group of novelists whose vivid and internally coherent imaginative worlds are so recognisable that their names have become adjectives — Dickensian, Wodehousian, Kafka-esqe. Thus, we all know what we mean by Le Carré-esque — the shifting sands of the Cold War, its depths and shallows reflected in the moral composition of those who fought it, sinister and impersonal state interests pitted against the individual, the inevitability of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, London grey in fog and rain, the outward manifestation of the inner landscape. The Cold War is long gone, of course — at least in its more overt and formal aspects — but in his latest novel Le Carré shows that his world of moral equivocation translates effortlessly into the 21st century.
A Delicate Truth is unusual in the Le Carré canon in that it doesn’t explicitly feature MI6 or the other intelligence services. They have an off-stage presence but the real action involves Toby Bell, a sympathetic and conscientious Foreign Office official who uncovers corruption, cover-up and criminal deceit in the heart of Whitehall. In his dramatisation of the secret blurring of public and private interests, highlighting relentless ambition and moral cowardice, Le Carré depicts the Deep State — the inner core of the establishment — as the real enemy of institutional and individual decency. One character in particular embodies all that arouses his Dickensian indignation — ‘your normal, rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely-spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke suit, with an unappeasable craving for money, power and respect, regardless of where he got them from’. We all know this man; he thrives where power lies.
Le Carré’s context is specifically New Labour and the War on Terror. A junior Foreign Office minister goes privateering on the side without the knowledge of Toby, his private secretary. The minister’s secret partner in crime is the plausible self-seeker described above, representing an American security outfit called Ethical Outcomes. Despite the New Labour context, it is of course impossible not to imagine this as an exaggerated version of Dr Liam Fox and his friend Adam Werritty, while Ethical Outcomes inevitably recalls the South African security company Executive Outcomes. The book’s moral anger is directed against the outsourcing of ethical responsibility and political decisions to organisations which are, in the end, in it for the money. No longer is it government-controlled MI6 that is tracking down a wanted terrorist to Gibraltar, and no longer is it government-controlled SAS troopers with their fingers on the triggers. Rather, it is soldiers who are made to resign from the SAS for the duration of the operation and the fingers that actually pull the triggers — with fatal consequences for the innocent — are US and South African mercenaries working for Ethical Outcomes. Throw in a Svengali-like senior official who is Toby Bell’s equivocal protector, a retired high commissioner who only gradually discovers his own past complicity, and a discarded SAS trooper with a fatally seared conscience, and you have a tale of intrigue and action.
Tension is maintained not only by the natural pull of the plot — the what’s-going-to-happen essential to any thriller — but by Le Carré’s skilful layering. There’s usually more than one thing going on at a time, more than one source of tension. As well as the mystery of what’s happening, the protagonist knows something we don’t, or someone else knows something he doesn’t. Because it’s so effective at getting you to turn the page, pointing you forward to what’s next rather than trying to draw attention to itself, it’s easy to overlook this kind of writing. Few do it well and fewer still can do it, as Le Carré does, with touches of humour:
‘When my beloved ex-partner waltzed off with a new girl-friend and half my mortgage, Dad went and laid siege to their flat.’
‘Then what did he do?’
‘It was the wrong flat.’
He may have got the flat wrong but the old boy gets everything else right, in the end. As — once again — does his remarkable author.