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Corporate accounts: John le Carré's reinvention as a chronicler of power and corruption

John le Carré was the chronicler par excellence of the devious machinations of Cold War espionage, but since the fall of the Berlin Wall he's repositioned himself as an analyst of corruption and power in a lopsided world of big business and big government.

An Iberia aircraft comes in to land at Gibraltar, the setting for part of John le Carré's new novel. Reuters / Anton Meres
An Iberia aircraft comes in to land at Gibraltar, the setting for part of John le Carré's new novel. Reuters / Anton Meres

A Delicate Truth

John le Carré



When the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War thawed, many critics believed John le Carré would be deprived of subject matter and forced to hang up his pen. Worse, perhaps, was the attendant fear that his back catalogue would become if not obsolete then irrelevant – insightful and incisive books that so accurately chronicled the cloak-and-dagger skulduggery of our times swiftly becoming quaint period pieces. But le Carré was too shrewd to let that happen.

In 1990 his owlish spy-supremo and champion of justice in the free world, George Smiley, packed his trunk and said goodbye to the Circus in The Secret Pilgrim, giving le Carré free rein to start again from scratch and invent new intelligence outfits and villains to run amok in new global hot spots. Our Game (1995) took us to oppressed republics in the Caucasus; The Constant Gardener (2001) exposed unethical shenanigans in the pharmaceutical industry; and A Most Wanted Man (2008) was a savage indictment on the war on terror and extraordinary rendition.

As for that back catalogue, in 2009 le Carré left Hodder, his publisher of 38 years, and defected to Penguin because its offer of turning his literary output into Modern Classics was too good to refuse. Grand plans are already in store to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the unsurpassable The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Immortality is assured. We will reread these novels and enjoy them all over again no matter how the world has changed and who is currently wielding power or abusing it.

Our Kind of Traitor in 2010 was le Carré’s first book for Penguin. His second, and latest, is A Delicate Truth. The former dealt with a Russian oligarch prepared to trade secrets with British intelligence in exchange for sanctuary. London is revealed as a key hub for money-laundering; one devious and well-connected City slicker is described as a canker that is devouring not just the financial sector but also “our most precious institutions of power”. The same foul play is at work in A Delicate Truth, only this time the tainted precious institution is the Foreign Office.

The book opens in Gibraltar at the outset of a counterterrorism operation code-named Wildlife. A British civil servant has been assigned to oversee the apprehension of a terrorist, a “jihadist Pimpernel”. The snatch-squad comprises discharged British special forces and American mercenaries. The operation has been green-lighted by Fergus Quinn, a minister of Her Majesty’s Foreign Office. Mission accomplished – or so we are led to believe. Le Carré pans out and begins a new strand with a new lead. Toby Bell is a rising star in the Foreign Office. He is also Quinn’s private secretary. When his master starts acting mysteriously, not to mention unilaterally, keeping him out of the loop, Toby decides to investigate. He learns that Quinn is in cahoots with Jay Crispin, head of Ethical Outcomes, a private defence contractor. The rules of the game have changed: “War’s gone corporate.” Secret intelligence is a commodity that can be gathered and sold, “untouched by bureaucratic hands”. Just as Toby gets in too deep he is posted to Beirut, his paper-chase aborted, his inconvenient questions muffled.

Three years pass. We switch perspective again, this time to Christopher “Kit” Probyn who, it transpires, was the anonymous civil servant Quinn dispatched to Gibraltar. Now he is Sir Christopher, having been knighted and promoted to ambassador since Wildlife. But after an encounter with a traumatised member of the special forces team who informs him the operation was a failure that killed a woman and her child, Kit enlists the help of Toby. With tacit support from Kit’s daughter, Emily, the two men utilise their sources from their respective corridors of power and peel away layers of subterfuge and sift each tossed scrap and Chinese whisper to get to the kernel, the delicate truth of the book’s title.

This is le Carré’s 23rd novel, and in many ways it is business as usual. We have a topical tale of top-level high jinks shrouded in need-to-know secrecy, with one or two rotten apples going off the reservation and an unlikely hero in search of answers. We get a key event – Gibraltar – followed by alternate angles, flashbacks in the form of confessions and debriefings. Locations are important, and when not quizzing his contacts in London, we follow Toby to Prague, Brussels and Berlin and then to Kit’s crumbling manor in Cornwall. Le Carré’s civil servants are, as ever, plummy old boys who address each other as “old chap” and have a jolly good time in their Pall Mall clubs. As with Dickens, he is never entirely able to convince with his female creations, the younger here sounding like the Mitford sisters and his civil servants’ better halves like decorative Stepford Wives whose gushing utterances come plagued with italics and spatterings of darling.

And yet, unlike most thriller writers, we could never accuse le Carré of lazily sticking to a formula. In the earlier novels he may have pitted the same sides against each other but every book was stocked with fresh surprises and old faces trying out new moves. In the more recent books the pleasures are to be had in watching a lone warrior square up to big guns such as corrupt governments, unprincipled arms dealers, and venal bankers and lawyers, before taking them on to realign a lopsided moral equilibrium. A Delicate Truth continues this trend but takes it further. At one point Toby realises the villains are closer to home than he thought, part of the “Deep State”, that “ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information”. We have moved on from amorphous terrorist groups. The villains these days are visible, identifiable, even contactable, but thoroughly untouchable.

This novel is le Carré with a twist. We are still in the murky realm of espionage but the emphasis here is on the shady mandarins of Whitehall rather than the shadowy spooks of Vauxhall. Le Carré has also upped the thrills – from his grand set-piece in Gibraltar, a masterclass in how to open a novel, to smaller, more subtle tricks like characters sweating it out for a crucial return phone call or frantically sending an email before the enemy closes in. There is also, mercifully, a less strident tone on show than the tub-thumping anti-Bush and Blair diatribes that blighted Absolute Friends (2003) and no repeat of the rambling blocks of expositional monologue that marred The Mission Song (2006).

Characters matter in each of le Carré’s novels, and while Toby and Kit may feel like templates of protagonists from earlier adventures, others around them are fresh originals: from belligerent grandee Quinn, to Toby’s slippery shape-shifting mentor Giles, to oleaginous Jay Crispin, who effortlessly exudes urbanity and menace in the same sentence. What has undeniably remained the same is le Carré’s curmudgeonly reluctance to embrace the digital age. This is a new era and the scalphunters, lamplighters and pavement-artists from the Smiley years are gone. The tradecraft revealed here is fascinating but it never involves state-of-the-art gadgetry. In a sense this is good – le Carré’s monochrome world was always the antidote to James Bond’s Technicolor playground – and yet there is something almost comical about Toby obtaining profiles via Google, recording a conversation with a tape-recorder and, when posing as a journalist, packing “a brace of ballpoints to go with the reporter’s notebook”. But perhaps we shouldn’t grumble for, when it comes to espionage, old-fashioned HUMINT (human intelligence) always makes for more exciting reading than clinical high-tech SIGINT (signals intelligence). And should le Carré ever introduce anything more high-tech than an encrypted phone, there is the risk he will turn into Tom Clancy.

“Spying is waiting” ran the refrain in The Russia House, le Carré’s novel from 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. In the pacier A Delicate Truth spying isn’t waiting, it is acting, doing, and running for your life. Once again, as in the best of his post-Cold War offerings, le Carré leads the charge at reflecting modern-day conflict and mapping geopolitical tension. Writing like this proves he is still in a league of his own, still capable of spellbinding, and still able to add to that back catalogue of classics.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.