Spies like us: John Le Carré’s ‘A Delicate Truth’

A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carré, Viking, RRP£18.99/ RRP$28.95, 336 pages

Fifty years ago John Le Carré wrote The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the novel that excoriated the ethical ambiguity and betrayal of the postwar intelligence world. It didn’t harm Ian Fleming’s already popular James Bond series; instead, it provided a bracing antidote.

Half a century later, Le Carré is as recognisable a writer as Dickens or Austen, with an often-imitated but never rivalled cast of seedy spies, false lovers, public schoolboys struggling with guilt, and charming but immoral leaders of the brutal establishment. Here he is again at 81, with his baroque characters and moral disgust intact in A Delicate Truth.

Michael Lewis once observed that he wrote Liar’s Poker, his semi-autobio­graphical account of Salomon Brothers in the 1980s, as a warning of the awfulness of Wall Street. He only succeeded in glamorising it, and watched a whole generation stampede into the world of mortgage-backed bonds, trading and massive bonuses.

Comparing A Delicate Truth to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, one wonders if Le Carré’s outrage backfired too. The way Alec Leamas was used by the spooks at the “Circus” to stitch up an East German spy is genteel compared with the world of the new novel’s idealistic hero Toby Bell: a place populated by smarmy New Labour hucksters, out to make a million. The new breed is epitomised by Jay Crispin, an unelected fixer: “As far as Toby was concerned, Jay Crispin was your normal, rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke suit, with an unappeasable craving for money, power and respect, regardless of where he got them from. So far, so good.”

It is 2011, and Toby finds himself embroiled with a tawdry Anglo-US ambush plot on Gibraltar that has gone wrong. It has exacted a terrible price on those involved – not those at the top, naturally, but those down the line of command.

Like David Hare, Le Carré has returned consistently to the theme of the postwar and post-Suez humiliation of the fading British at the hands of the Americans. The latter are represented here by “Mrs Spencer Hardy of Houston, Texas, better known to the world’s elite as the one and only Miss Maisie,” who is just as neo-conservatively creepy as she sounds.

Gibraltar is a Le Carré-esque spot – half-British but slipping from Britain’s grasp. Here, it is an island where pesky rules such as international law needn’t apply to allies. There is a nice exposition of what the British can do in the raid and what must be left to the Americans, depending on who is on land and who at sea.

The failure of “Operation Wildlife” drags in Toby and Sir Christopher “Kit” Probyn, a former Foreign Office bod given his knighthood and his marching orders, who has retired uneasily to Cornwall. His former employers want him to keep quiet but Sir Kit has a wife with a conscience.

This is vintage Le Carré and highly enjoyable. He is the master of the tightly crafted, interlocked plot, with characters who blow smoke, cause trouble and have chaotic affairs. Some are deliberately deceptive; others merely drifting in middle age. The reader must decide which is which.

True, we have come across some of these people before. Laura, the “Treasury boffin, 50 years old, sometime Fellow of All Souls,” who spills secrets over dinner, has a touch of Connie Sachs, mother confessor of the Circus and ally of George Smiley.

Similarly, Kit Probyn’s arrival in St Pirran in a camper van with a yellow labrador in the back owes a lot to Jim Prideaux turning up at Thursgood’s prep school at the start of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy “driving an old red Alvis and towing a second-hand caravan that had once been blue”.

No matter. The fact that some tropes recur doesn’t detract from the pleasure of reading genuine late-period Le Carré. There might not be many more, and the fabric of this one is beautifully woven.

Le Carré is up to date with his target. The plot moves through a late-noughties London filled with oligarch money, and he captures the new establishment of politicians, tycoons and former spies. Everyone gossips in the private language of deal-making, then glosses it for public consumption.

If there is a difficulty, it is that the moral shades of grey in earlier novels have turned to black and white. Jay is entirely repulsive in a way that even Bill Haydon wasn’t in Tinker, Tailor. The brilliance of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was that its goodies were bad and its baddie was good.

Such ambiguity is gone. Toby is rigorously upright, if a bit stiff, and who wouldn’t want to seduce Emily Probyn, the doctor daughter of Sir Kit? Perhaps the world, confusing and ambiguous in the 1970s and 1980s, has simpified itself in Le Carré’s mind, and he has little time for evil.

John Gapper is an FT columnist and author of ‘A Fatal Debt’ (Duckworth)

Watch a specially commissioned short film about the making of ‘A Delicate Truth’ at www.johnlecarre.com

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