War undercover

Lead review
Last Updated 18 May 2013, 13:18 IST

‘A Delicate Truth’, a new thriller by John le Carre, pits good against evil by way of two innocents plopped into a high-stakes game, writes Michiko Kakutani.

A Delicate Truth, John le Carre’s new thriller, is anything but delicate: It is ponderous, heavy-handed and obvious — everything that his wonderful early Smiley novels, which traded in moral ambiguity and psychological nuance, were not.

Although le Carre hit his stride again in 2010 with Our Kind of Traitor, this new novel resembles two preachy recent books of his, Absolute Friends (2004) and A Most Wanted Man (2008). It is so hobbled by ideological fervour — a detestation for the way the United States and Britain have waged the war on terror — that it rapidly devolves into a didactic and ungainly pitting of good against evil with an utterly predictable storyline.

As he’s done before, le Carre borrows a trick from Hitchcock to put his story in play, plopping two innocents into a deadly, high-stakes game that will jeopardise their lives. Kit is a middle-aged, midlevel British civil servant, “hauled from his desk in one of the more prosaic departments of Her Majesty’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be dispatched on a top-secret mission of acute sensitivity.”

Toby Bell, a 31-year-old rising star in the Foreign Office, is the private secretary (‘minder and confidential counsellor’) to a newly-appointed minister named Fergus Quinn. Something shady happened in Quinn’s past, and Toby is charged with sticking “like glue to his new master” and making sure he doesn’t “make puddles” again. So when Quinn starts acting furtively, Toby secretly tape-records a top-secret meeting in his office — a decision that has the potential to unleash an international scandal involving British and US interests, and a nasty government cover-up.

Operation Wildlife, the mission that sucks in Kit and Toby, concerns the attempted capture and rendition of a supposed Al-Qaeda kingpin code-named Punter. Just to make sure that the reader sees this operation and the plotting behind it as symbols of neo-imperialist greed, ideological certainty and an unconscionable lack of moral scruple, le Carre throws into the mix “a fly-by-night company of defence contractors trading under the name of Ethical Outcomes Inc.”; the peddling of raw intelligence; and financing from one “Miss Maisie, born-again benefactress of America’s Republican far right, friend of the Tea Party” and “scourge of Islam.”

To make matters worse, le Carre does a truly maladroit job of dramatising this story of corruption and governmental intrigue. There are pages and pages of exposition, and yards of awkward exchanges and strained monologues, in which characters summarise their knowledge of events or set out hypotheses about what might have happened. For instance: “Think on it, Toby: a rabble of American mercenaries, aided by British Special Forces in disguise, and funded by the Republican evangelical right. And for good measure, the whole thing masterminded by a shady defence contractor in cahoots with a leftover group of fire-breathing neo-cons from our fast-dissolving New Labour leadership. And the dividend? The mangled corpses of an innocent Muslim woman and her baby daughter.”

People say things like “war’s gone corporate.” Or speak of “our burgeoning terror industry.” The tradecraft seems pretty pedestrian for foreign service hotshots — Toby is constantly trying to figure out what’s going on by Googling names he comes across. And the novel’s two heroes seem incredibly naive for veterans in the diplomacy business, repeatedly believing the baldest of lies and underestimating the venality of their adversaries.

What’s more, the scam that Fergus Quinn and his pal the private defence contractor Jay Crispin have been running is so alarming and so transparent that it seems ludicrous to believe that they haven’t been found out by political opponents, the press or other watchdogs — especially in light of suspicions about earlier collusion. Quinn’s secretive behaviour and many furtive appointments also make it startling that Toby is one of the few people around who seems to be genuinely concerned.

The only elements that keep this thriller trundling along are le Carre’s atmospheric, movie-like opening, set in the British territory of Gibraltar, and his sympathetic portrayal of Kit and Toby. Like Perry in Our Kind of Traitor and Salvo in The Mission Song, Kit allows himself to be drawn into a “cloak-and-dagger” mission because he wants to see a little action, to do something important and dangerous; in his case, after years of being a dutiful, mostly deskbound civil servant on the consuming end of “the odd secret report.” Until he learns the truth of what really happened during his secret mission in Gibraltar, he will regard the assignment as “the best thing I ever did in my entire career.”

As for Toby, he’s “the decent, diligent, tousled, compulsively ambitious, intelligent-looking fellow that his colleagues and employers took him for.” Unlike many of his school friends who sought to make a lot of money after graduation, Toby “wished to make a difference — or, as he had put it a little shamefacedly to his examiners, take part in his country’s discovery of its true identity in a post-imperial, post-cold-war world.”

Given the personalities of Kit and Toby, and the rapaciousness of their adversaries, there’s never any doubt that a showdown is going to occur. The only suspense stems from exactly what sort of form that showdown is going to take. In the end, it’s not enough to power this tendentious novel through to its unsurprising conclusion.

A delicate truth
John le Carre
2013, pp 310

(Published 18 May 2013, 13:18 IST)

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