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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism