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Review: Le Carré's spy craft returns to form in 'Delicate Truth'

For young teenagers of a certain era, our introduction to the world of espionage was found in the improbable pages of Ian Fleming's superspy Bond, James Bond — a guilty pleasure of swilled martinis, bedded women and derring-do against international criminal masterminds.

We hid the 50-cent paperbacks filled with sin from our parents and nuns, tucked between the pages of Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby, as we pretended to care about literature.

But with the passage of time, so too came an evolution in our spook of choice, perhaps driven by the cruel but true realization we'd never look as good in a tuxedo as 007. We all, at heart, have more in common with the rumpled, gray, much put-upon George Smiley.

And so began a decades-long relationship with David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, one of our finest writers who also writes spy novels.

Le Carré is back with his 23rd novel, A Delicate Truth. And if fans of the venerated former MI5 and MI6 operative have been disappointed with some of the author's more recent efforts, which at times flirted with becoming didactic screeds raging against Big This or Big That, A Delicate Truth is an uneven but still satisfying return to the stylish, taut storytelling that makes le Carré such an engaging read.

The Cold War was le Carré's mother's milk as he took the reader into the complex, dark, most unromantic underbelly of espionage. His first novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, published in 1963, exposed an intelligence world of opaque duplicity.

From the pen of le Carré we learned the vernacular and memorable characters of covert tradecraft — moles, honey pots, Moscow Centre, the Circus, Carlos and, of course, Smiley and his people.

A Delicate Truth is something of a return to those roots.

Christopher "Kit" Probyn is nearing the end of a loyal, though not entirely satisfying, diplomatic career serving her majesty's foreign office when he is summoned by the overbearing, egotistical Minister Fergus Quinn to be his eyes and ears on a sensitive dark arts mission about to unfold on the British colony of Gibraltar.

The covert assignment, code-named "Operation Wildlife," is a dodgy one: the rendition snatch of a violent jihadist arms dealer. British Special Operations forces will be working with a team of American mercenaries who work for a company called Ethical Outcomes and its sleazy head, Jay Crispin. And yes, you'll be forgiven if you think this sounds an awful lot like the notorious Blackwater security firm of Iraq infamy.

In the ensuing chaos of the mission, Kit is led to believe all went well. And it must have since he is rewarded with a knighthood and a cushy ambassadorship to ease into retirement.

Years pass, and a now comfortably retired Kit is confronted by Jeb, the leader of the British team that fateful night, who informs him the rendition was an abject failure, leading only to the collateral-damage killings of an innocent Arab woman and her child.

At the same time a savvy and eager foreign service officer, Toby Bell, has gone to work for Quinn. Bell inadvertently stumbles upon bits and pieces of the Wildlife debacle and eventually becomes consumed with uncovering what really happened years ago on Gibraltar.

In time Kit and Toby forge a tense alliance to ferret out the delicate truth, to hold Quinn and Crispin to account. This is a John le Carré novel, after all. Unpleasantries will ensue.

Le Carré is a big-boy novelist. His storylines often shift quickly back and forth in time, demanding the reader keep up with the pace. But it's a worthwhile ride to tag along with a writer who, even at 81, can still spin a crackling yarn with a strong narrative and richly textured, nuanced characters.

Le Carré's characters are far from larger than life. Toby and Kit are men of great flaws and great fears as they push through their shortcomings to expose Operation Wildlife, sometimes it seems in spite of themselves.

For all the adulation and success he has enjoyed from his novels and the film adaptations, le Carré has remained adamant about refusing to submit his work to be considered for any literary awards, including the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

But his many fans should be heartened to know A Delicate Truth would certainly qualify for Comeback Author of the Year.

Daniel Ruth can be reached at

A Delicate Truth

By John le Carré

Viking Adult, 320 pages, $28.95

Review: Le Carré's spy craft returns to form in 'Delicate Truth' 06/22/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 21, 2013 5:13pm]
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