The dirty business of modern espionage gets a glancing look in John le Carré’s 23rd novel. Le Carré has long operated as a shadow Ian Fleming. For all the lone-man heroics of the Bond stories, with their (of late) painted-on world weariness, le Carré’s men and women operated in murkier territories. They root about in cavernous bureaucracies where the deadly game of spying, information-trading, and executive actions are handled by committee meetings no more dramatic than a gathering of insurance sales executives. The only glamour came from the occasional grim satisfaction of a task well handled. In A Delicate Truth, there’s even less for the characters to hang on to, or readers. The world has gone foggy.
The story starts with an unnamed middle-bencher from the British Foreign Service who has traveled to Gibraltar under the assumed alias of Paul Anderson to help with something called Operation Wildlife. Diffident and eager to please, but rather hapless in all ways, Anderson waits in his hotel room for instructions and wonders what the hell he’s doing there. The operation itself is only vaguely described to Anderson, but seems to involve a snatch-and-grab of some high-interest target, with various Special Forces, mercenaries, and shadowy Americans involved. It appears to end badly, with Anderson as baffled as ever.
Years later, glimmers of what transpired in Wildlife start to surface. Toby Bell, secretary to a Foreign Office minister who sent Anderson to Gibraltar, is uneasy with what he’s discovered. Bell is something of a blank, like many of le Carré’s protagonists, though not without some shred of the moral fiber in short supply around Whitehall. Moral fiber or not, his desire to voice the truth could end in prison:
“No evil genius controlled him, no paymaster, provocateur or sinister manipulator armed with an attaché case stuffed with hundred-dollar bills was waiting round the corner, no activist in a ski mask. He was in that sense the most feared creature of our contemporary world: a solitary decider.”
If le Carré’s story had been merely that of the upright Bell doing his best to uncover the possible scandal that was Wildlife, then A Delicate Affair wouldn’t have quite the grit and staying power that it does. The world Bell operates in isn’t a Manichean one of right and wrong, legal and unlawful. His is that of modern England, and the slippery, privatized liberalism of New Labor (whose Clintonian squishiness seems to be a particular bête noire of le Carré’s). In that world, it’s not enough to simply know of a wrongdoing, and have the evidence to prove it, somebody like Bell needs to find somebody to tell it to; somebody who will care.
Much of A Delicate Affair is wrapped up in this quest, as Bell tries to join forces with Anderson, later revealed to be the retired Sir Kit Probyn, who has himself just had a run-in with one of Wildlife’s other veterans, who was just as haunted as he by what went down that night. Arrayed against them is a vast political-corporate structure that couldn’t care less, and a blithe security contractor, Jay Crispin, who embodies all the stateless and amoral greed of the modern West. It’s a dispiriting enterprise, and one that almost makes one recall with fondness the clarity of the Cold War-set dramas that le Carré made his name with.
In books like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, le Carré never pretended that the East-West conflict was anything less than a messy and frequently pointless exercise. Unlike many of his thriller brethren, le Carré didn’t try to show that the institutions running those conflicts were much more than the collective enterprise of many fallible humans. But in this novel, those government edifices seem, if anything, even more thin on the ground and corrupted in nature. There’s nobody here who it seems can’t be bought. It’s an England that seems about five minutes away from collapsing in on itself.
As with many of his post-Smiley works, from A Constant Gardner and Our Game, A Delicate Affair is an angry novel, infuriated by the moral cowardice the author sees all about. Like Graham Greene, le Carré is a world-traveled British man of letters with a deeply abiding moral sensibility and dour-trending outlook that has left him deeply skeptical of all power structures, most particularly the jaunty, corrupting militarism and corporatism of the Americans.
This anger keeps the book afloat when le Carré’s skillfully-rendered but somewhat plodding drama cannot. He retains the touch for noting the day-to-day difficulties of the spy’s tradecraft. In one scene, Bell tries to ascertain whether there are any operatives outside his apartment. Like a good spy-novel hero, he looks for the telltale signs: bystanders with cellphones, men in overalls who don’t seem to be doing any work. Le Carré then slyly punctures the scene with one droll observation: “As usual, his street contained all of these and more.” He knows better than most that all of the professional spy’s knowledge is frequently useless when run up against the chaos of everyday life.
It’s an exhausted book, for an exhausted world.