05/07/2013 08:26 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In John le Carré's A Delicate Truth The Truth Is Far From Delicate

When we last were blessed with a John le Carré novel, we were confronted with a question not often posed in espionage thrillers -- who is more immoral, the biggest money-launderer in Russia or a London banker? (Maybe the title will give you a clue: Our Kind of Traitor.)

Now comes his 23rd novel, A Delicate Truth. If you are hoping this title suggests le Carré has written about espionage that is sophisticated and civilized -- espionage as an art form -- you should leave now with your illusions intact. In these pages, the dirty deeds are brutal and crude. And so is the cover-up.

So what is delicate? There's a terrific first chapter in Gibraltar, but in these pages, most of the action occurs in England. For the first time in a le Carré novel, it's Brit against Brit. They wear good clothes and went to good schools and they sure can sling the bullshit -- when they speak of protecting our freedom from terrorists, they're quite moving.

But "delicate" is an irony. That cool English charm has worn thin. The bad guys? They're in the government, or were. Since the end of the Cold War, le Carré's books have been moving in this direction. It took George Bush ("The U.S. has gone mad") and Tony Blair ("A leader who takes his country to war under false pretenses is simply not an acceptable person") to concentrate le Carré's disgust.

Thrillers may be his traditional literary category, but that no longer describes his work. The author of A Delicate Truth has become a moralist, enraged that the powerful commit great crimes, lie and get away with it. In essence, he's writing the books that Charles Dickens would be writing now. For that alone, I say: three cheers.

A Delicate Truth may be an angry book, but it begins like a le Carré classic: It's 2008, we're in Gibraltar, and American mercenaries are attempting the rendition of some terrorists, using a British diplomat as cover. The operation goes wrong.

As you see, le Carré's anger is about two unknown, unimportant people -- a woman and a child. In a world where Important People display "sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody's interest but their own," le Carré still thinks individual human lives have value, that you and I are not "collateral damage." How remarkable. How quaint.

Inevitably, someone knows what really happened that night and wants to make it right. He's Toby Bell, of the British foreign service; he has a great future, he also wants "to make a difference." Good luck to that. His mentor is Giles Oakley ("I wheedle, I chip away, I argue, I reason, I cajole, I hope. But I do not expect"). He must also contend with Jay -- "Jay" like "Gatsby" -- Crispin ("your normal, rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke suit"). And there is an American woman, rich as Texas, who has predictably vile views and a willingness to finance their execution.

You get the idea: The government has outsourced everything unpleasant, starting with war. "War's gone corporate, in case you haven't noticed," says a British government minister. "Standing professional armies are a bust. Top-heavy, under-equipped ... and cost a mint."

John le Carré worked for MI5 and MI6 when it was possible to believe England and the United States were, more or less, the good guys and the Soviets were, more than less, villains. He had to quit in 1963, when The Spy Who Came Into the Cold was published.

Half a century later some critics think he's become a crank. They don't say he can't plot, or create memorable characters, or make you stay up late gnawing at a knuckle while you race through his pages. Because he can still do all that -- and more. As you can learn for yourself.

Here's an excerpt.

And here's John le Carré reading from his book.

[Cross-posted from]