Reviewed: A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

Secrets and lies.

A Delicate Truth
John le Carré
Viking, 336pp, £18.99

Behind the conspiracy that drives John le Carré’s new novel is an American private defence company that calls itself “Ethical Outcomes”. It might more accurately have called itself “Unethical Incomes”. Like all of his novels, A Delicate Truth asks how to create ethical outcomes in an increasingly venal society. In the cold war thrillers that established his reputation, le Carré followed the effects of the conflict between the ideologies of east and west, “communism” v“freedom”. Over the past decade or so, his books have increasingly focused on the moral vacuum that has emerged from the hollow triumph of capitalism, as we all discover that there is nothing free about a world in which anything is potentially for sale – on the contrary, it is proving very costly indeed.

If 2001’s The Constant Gardener was le Carré’s attack on Big Pharma, A Delicate Truth is an attack on what he calls “Big Greed” – the transformation of a market economy into a market society. Big Greed is ruining le Carré’s Britain, which is becoming less great by the day: there are no George Smileys left in this atomised society. Instead, a toxic individualism holds sway, which can only be answered by the increasingly rare consciences of honest men fighting their way through a dishonourable world.

The novel opens with American mercenaries in 2008 engaged in a bit of extraordinary rendition in Gibraltar, using a British diplomat named Kit Probyn as a “fig leaf” to cover their illegal operation on foreign soil. Probyn has been ordered by the minister of defence, one Fergus Quinn, to come to the aid of Queen and country, believing that the objective of “Operation Wildlife” is counter - terrorism. Eventually, Probyn learns that he was unwitting in more ways than one: told that the top-secret operation had been an unqualified success, he was shipped off to a plum post in the Caribbean and knighted, when, in reality, the operation – unethical on the face of it –was far more immoral than he knew and a fiasco to boot.

Meanwhile, Quinn’s secretary, Toby Bell, who has refused to countenance what he suspects is his minister’s hand in the nation’s till, becomes increasingly suspicious of Quinn’s dealings with the mysterious J Crispin. The name is presumably a deeply ironic reference to Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech, for this Crispin is busily selling arms, honour and country to the highest bidder. (The literary allusions don’t end there: Quinn calls Toby “old sport” – the italics are le Carré’s and irritating – and, two pages later, Toby wonders whether the J Crispin of whom he has heard might be named “Jay like Jay Gatsby”. Whether this is an allusion to Crispin’s criminal allegiances or his fraudulence or a wry undermining of the way that people like him are destroying American and British dreams of equality and meritocracy is impossible to say, because le Carré abandons the comparison, never to return to it.)

Toby acquires incriminating evidence about Operation Wildlife and joins forces with Probyn to expose the nefarious plot of Crispin and Quinn. The problem is that no one in their government wants it exposed. Faced with a secret state relying on plausible deniability and the subcontracting of its dirty work, Toby and Kit must search for a way to hold power accountable.

At the heart of the story is a Hitchcockian McGuffin: Toby has a recording of a secret meeting, in the comically low-tech form of reel-to-reel tapes, relics of the cold war era that no one has remembered to remove from ministerial offices. As the questions mount, so does the suspense: what really happened on the night of Operation Wildlife? What are Crispin’s real plans and who does he work for? What was the operation’s objective, behind the cover-up, and how did it go so spectacularly awry? The problem with A Delicate Truth is that the McGuffin is just that – a device so uninteresting that le Carré doesn’t even bother to answer all of these questions. He has planted the device purely for the purposes of denouncing the duplicity and hyp - ocrisy of the new secret state.

At his best, le Carré parses the workings of conflicted loyalties, the balancing of one value against another, of moral idealism against political realism. Lately, his novels have traded less in moral ambiguity and more in the certainties of heroes and villains. The book vibrates with le Carré’s patent indignation at the sense that our politicians are betraying all of us and the values they are meant to uphold. Instead of asking difficult questions about whether unethical means can justify ethical ends, however, A Delicate Truth pits the ethical against the unethical, good guys against bad, the moral against the amoral, honest British soldiers against dishonest American mercenaries.

At almost the dead centre of the novel, Kit Probyn, who has retired with his wife to a picturesque village in Cornwall, attends the local “annual fayre”, over which he has been asked to preside as the lord of misrule. “It’s here and now, Kit thinks, as the elation rises in him,” Le Carré writes.

The jostling crowds, the palominos cavorting in the meadows, the sheep safely grazing on the hillside, even the new bungalows that deface the lower slopes of Bailey’s Hill: if this isn’t the land they have loved and served for so long, where is? And all right, it’s Merrie bloody England, it’s Laura bloody Ashley, it’s ale and pasties and yo-ho for Cornwall, and tomorrow morning all these nice, sweet people will be back at each other’s throats, screwing each other’s wives and doing all the stuff the rest of the world does. But right now it’s their National Day, and who’s an ex-diplomat of all people to
complain if the wrapping is prettier than what’s inside?

Yet his recognition that this is sentimental nonsense does not make it less sentimental or less nonsensical. Le Carré once told an interviewer that his style developed from his training as a young intelligence officer writing reports: “We went for a bald style . . . profound suspicion of adjectives, and making the verb do the work.” A Delicate Truth continues to follow this stylistic principle but he should be more suspicious of this adjectival scene. It is disconcerting, to say the least, to read a writer of le Carré’s acuity defending the pretty wrapper of heritage tourism and superficial patriotism. This scene undermines everything that the novel ought to be about: defending the heart of the nation, not its selfdeceiving trappings.

As if to compensate for the degradation of the world he portrays, le Carré has responded with fictions that are increasingly consoling and heroes who are rewarded with upright women who stiffen their moral backbones. These women may be more admirable than the serially unfaithful Ann Smiley of earlier books but they are no less one-dimensional. If they are not quite cardboard characters, there is certainly no George Smiley here, either. And the plot proves to be as under - developed as the characters, the conspiracy so gestural, that it is hard to remember that the author is the man who gave us the intricate, internecine plots of Smiley’s world.

In the end, the question of what happens to the whistle-blower is at the heart of the story and the best thing about this book is its final paragraph, in which le Carré gives his deeply sinister answer to that question. That paragraph alone makes A Delicate Truth worth reading, not only for the obvious pleasures to be offered by a master of suspense but for the brutal truth he forces us to confront at the story’s end.

Sarah Churchwell’s “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby” will be published in June by Little, Brown

John le Carré at home in Cornwall in 2010. Photograph: Paul Calver

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Chain of command: how the office lanyard took over corporate culture

“I realised that I had to sort myself out with a new lanyard or I was going to struggle with my tribe.”

Compulsory lanyards arrived at BBC Broadcasting House in January 1991. Until then, a cursory flash of your staff card to the uniformed commissionaire would do. The Gulf War changed all that.

News trainees like me were pulled back from our regional radio attachments across the nation to serve the so-called Scud FM. In 12-hour shifts, we recorded CNN output on giant reel-to-reel tape machines, cutting packages to feed the rolling news. There were so many new faces, and the bead-chain lanyards gave a semblance of organisation.

Barely out of university, some of us were thinking: emergency civic responsibility. We had only seen lanyards worn in those 1970s and 1980s panic films such as WarGames. We were young outsiders getting access to the establishment.

Two 1990s television shows gave us our figureheads: Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, flashing her FBI ID at every opportunity, and later Allison Janney’s C J Cregg in The West Wing, who embodied the idea of the female who had broken through, thoroughly qualified to run the operation. The lanyard was their symbol of arrival and as much of a challenge to the old order as their brightly coloured pantsuits were.

In a recent reassessment of the liberal love affair with The West Wing, Current Affairs magazine mocked fans who “think a lanyard is a talisman that grants wishes and wards off evil”. But it’s a good summary of how it felt then.

The novelist Bill Beverly, who grew up in the US Midwest, confirms my suspicion that the lanyard’s 1990s appeal lay in its historic gendered status: “They were for gym teachers and coaches. A lanyard for one’s whistle, for one’s stopwatch, for other elements of communication and control.”

Unlike military dog tags, which remained hidden, the lanyard was about publicly declaring that you belonged. Corporations, introducing them long before electronic scanner-gate entry became the norm, benefited from their identity as a symbol of cool access. Think of the Wayne’s World films, in which the backstage VIP lanyard is a celebratory badge of entry.

Over the years, lanyards have come to reveal so much about status. One charity worker, who asked to remain anonymous, has noticed who does and doesn’t wear them outside NHS hospitals: “I used to get the Tube into London Bridge and you’d see all the young doctors from Guy’s wearing their lanyards, quite proud. You never saw nurses or porters wearing theirs.”

At a big charity with compulsory lanyards for security cards, she saw tribal divisions: “The fundraising and facilities people all wore the work lanyard they gave you. But in public affairs and marketing and design, we all wore our own lanyards and turned our photo ID around. The electronic thing still worked, but no one could see your face. I realised within weeks that I had to sort myself out with a new lanyard or I was going to struggle with my tribe.”

When she moved to a small women’s charity, a more conventional rebellion emerged over corporate conformity: “I noticed they still needed an electronic card to get into the building. I was used to wearing a lanyard with one on, so I took a handful of nice ones in with me and gave them each one, and every one of the women just looked at me and went, ‘We’re not wearing that.’ It was the absolute opposite of command and control.”

At the Labour party conference last September, she saw how lanyards affected the mood. She observes that, as well as the standard union-sponsored lanyard, many members of Momentum were wearing a special lanyard with the Palestinian flag colours. “They really stuck out because they were like a party within a party,” she recalls. “Inside, they moved in packs. It was like the savannah – much more divided, even among the MPs.”

Journalists in the US have a tradition of bonding through novelty press cards on lanyards. One enterprising hack made them during the 1996 O J Simpson civil trial, with mugshots for each significant calendar date: Hallowe’en horror, Christmas, a Thanksgiving one featuring Simpson in a pilgrim hat with a turkey and the slogan “I’ll carve”.

Such small-scale rebellions over how we wear our lanyards are a distraction. Wearing our data around our necks, even displaying it boastfully, seems, in hindsight, a preparation for the normalisation of giving out our personal data online to corporations that can predict where we’ll go and how we’ll consume. If you have nothing to hide, what does it matter?

Twenty-six years on from my first encounter with it, in the new open-plan BBC Broadcasting House, lanyard-based security is much tighter for many reasons (including a break-in by a bunch of teens who found an unmanned door to the newsroom and wandered around posting rather giggly videos online).

There are still gestures of defiance. One colleague used to wear 20 or more lanyards collected from dozens of BBC buildings, twisted into a kind of giant wreath, like a Grand Prix winner.

My defeat lies in the way that I wear a second special labelled lanyard around my neck for the one day in the year that I might need access to a tiny, cordoned-off BBC area outside the Royal Albert Hall to record a line of voice track in an outside broadcast van.

Lanyards may have given us access but in accepting the myth of entry to august institutions, we are tagged and controlled for ever. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder