Le Carre's spies confront 'A Delicate Truth'

John le Carre, author of "A Delicate Truth"

John le Carre, author of "A Delicate Truth" (Viking, May 2013). (Credit: Anton Corbijn)

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A DELICATE TRUTH, by John le Carré. Viking, 309 pp., $28.95.

Whether you call them sins or garden-variety human flaws, John le Carré seizes upon them with impish ferocity. Lust, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride provide the engines for his thrillers. Only gluttony, of the original seven deadly, has escaped his attention, replaced by ordinary foolishness and lack of self-understanding.

Le Carré's spies and counterspies carry sin in their DNA, along with the occasional longing for virtue. But doing the right thing is invariably a messy and dangerous option. The bad guys feel no guilt, and the good guys too often lose everything.

Toby Bell is the unmistakably good guy among a gaggle of bad ones in le Carré's new novel "A Delicate Truth." An ambitious yet principled working-class Labour Party striver, Toby knows "his first aim must be to rise in the system he dreamed of liberating." At Britain's Foreign Office, his ascent has been rapid, propelled by keen intelligence and the mentorship of Giles Oakley. Always be cautious, this pragmatist advises, and never make waves.

But Toby's promotion as chief assistant to Fergus Quinn, a thuggish shark high in the department, makes him question how far one should follow the dictates of realpolitik. Going along to get along can put you into deep doo-doo, especially when wrongdoing seems to be the government's standard operating principle. When Toby discovers his boss is masterminding a moneymaking scheme disguised as an anti-terrorist plot, his ethics clash with his ambition.

Lured into this funny business on Gibraltar is midlevel diplomat "Paul Anderson," in fact one Christopher (Kit) Probyn, who ends up rewarded for keeping his mouth shut with knighthood and an ambassadorship. Le Carré makes of this unfortunate soul enmeshed in evil beyond his comprehension an untidy blend of self-regard, entitlement and timidity.

As usual, le Carré's story hurtles along with the speed of light without sacrificing an attention to telling detail and spot-on dialogue. He is as at home writing scenes that make the pulse race as with those that compel our thoughtful consideration of the call of conscience.

Will Toby become the whistle-blower he realizes he should be? Would it amount, as Giles insists, to "self-righteous pursuit of the unfindable?" Will Kit see that he's been seduced into being diplomatic cover for illegal, immoral acts? Le Carré refuses to show his hand too early.

Famously appalled by the porous line between government and business, the author pulls no punches here. "New Labour loves Big Greed," one character charges, while large corporations remain safely beyond regulation, as "too big to fail and too big to fight." Also earning le Carré's scorn: abuses of power in the name of antiterrorism, such as indefinitely holding suspects without trial.

Applaud the author's politics or not, you cannot fail to appreciate his literary talent. Le Carré has written great novels, not just gripping spy stories -- remember "A Perfect Spy"? -- and, at 81 years of age, he has delivered in "A Delicate Truth" another breathtakingly good work.

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