It is hard to write a review of a very, very good book that you really really liked because it is easy to just end up with, I liked this and I loved that. And really, who, outside of you, actually cares what you liked unless you get deeply into the why? For a couple of weeks now after finishing John le Carré's latest novel, A Delicate Truth (Viking, 2013), I find myself desperately wishing that I could write like that. That British-ly elegant structure, that economy of words, that CHOICE of words, that somehow manages to convey a setting, a scene, and sensibility in far less but far more interesting verbiage than pretty much anyone else out there writing crime or espionage or whatever-the-heck-you-call-this fiction - this is my goal, and one that I fear is unattainable. Consider this chapter opener:
"On a sunny Sunday early in that same spring, a thirty-one-year-old British foreign servant earmarked for great things sat alone at the pavement table of a humble Italian cafe in London's Soho, steeling himself to perform an act of espionage to outrageous that, if detected, it would cost him his career and his freedom: namely, recovering a tape recording, illicitly made by himself, from the Private Office of a Minister of the Crown whom it was his duty to serve and advise to the best of his considerable ability." (47)
You don't realize, when reading it, that it is all one sentence; I didn't until I typed it just now! And run-on sentences are usually one of my irritants. But in this one that I didn't even notice, we get both the subject's view of himself (committing an outrageous act, the responsibility of his job), and how he's viewed by Society (earmarked for great things). There is a certain keep-calm-and-carry-on tone when the old Foreign Office types speak. You realize that for a British foreign servant, these two views are ingrained - he represents the Crown (caps usage brilliant, required by protocol I'm sure but really Makes the Point) and that's who he is when he's at home, so to speak. This sensibility, of doing the Right Thing because we are British and that's how we roll, is a central theme of the story. Which is, in standard JlC mode, pretty complex, jumping around in time and place and subject so that you have to Pay Attention, lest you get hopelessly lost.
Loosely, this particularly story involves an illicit operation that may or may not have gone bad, some shady American defense contractors from a company hilariously named "Ethical Outcomes," and a couple of Foreign Office (we call it Service, the Brits call it an Office) Don Quixotes who will tilt at the windmills that claim to protect the Crown in our modern era.
All of this said, this is not as complex a plot as one might find in, say, The Honorable Schoolboy, which was the hardest of the Karla trilogy for me to follow. Generally speaking, JlC's more recent novels are more straightforward than his Cold War classics: black and white hats are stark in their contrast, and a bit obvious. If you follow his work, you'll know that JlC's more recent books have really been about the failings of our great and glorious free and democratic governments, and the institutions that protect them. Big government and its covert strategies, esp. when farmed out to third parties to protect the reputation of said govt. are bad, as is naked capitalism more generally. Le Carré's very public condemnation of the US and friends' involvement in Iraq is well-documented, and stories like The Constant Gardner, The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man and A Delicate Truth are unambiguous challenges to the US-led new world order. It's funny because of course the old JlC books were set in a world of clear good and bad - West v. East, with all of its Cold War weight - and the characters really wrestled with means vs. ends. And, in more recent works, there is still an individual or two who rails not entirely helplessly against the trend. But I don't know that we have the subtle build-up to the moral dilemma of Smiley or Magnus Pym for example. For Our Heroes (and heroes they are) Kit Probyn and Toby Bell, the moral path is clear, if fraught. Castlekeep is a perfect fantasy of the evil defense subcontractor's headquarters, as is Jay Crispin, and yes, we should despise them. It is clear that in JlC's worldview, most of us have lost even the ability to think about some sense of personal decency, dare I say honor? (How I hate that word, charged as it is with all kinds of meanings and misuses for all kinds of people). Maybe I just know what to expect from a JlC story these days: rage against the machine.
A couple of minor quibbles. It's pretty clear that JlC has it in for the Yanks - they are the source of Ethical Outcomes after all, but he might employ a little more subtlety (see Castlekeep, above). Miss Maisie, the money behind EO, i pretty derivative of Julia Roberts' character in "Charlie Wilson's War." And small note to editors: fact check, please! There is no such Harvard degree as a Masters in Business Studies.
Reading back, this sounds vaguely critical, and it is not. It is more an attempt to wrap my mind around a great - great- writer's oeuvre. Reading this, I found myself thinking about other JlC books constantly. The idea of a little person as a mentor (Oakley) reminded me of George Smiley, and who can read the name Toby and not think of Toby Esterhaze and his lamplighters? But, I'm drawn back to the writing, as always. In chapter 3, which overall exudes that hale-fellow-well-met Britishness that JlC always captures so well, there is an absolutely brilliantly executed recognition scene that stopped me in tracks, and made me read it again. The reader is unwittingly recognizing one character as he is reluctantly - so very reluctantly - recognizing another. To say more would spoil the story, but suffice it to say that you should drop pretty much whatever else you are reading right now and enjoy this. And then wish, as I do every time I sit down to type, that you had a piece of that.