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A Delicate Truth Hardcover – May 7, 2013
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*Starred Review* Shockingly, le Carré no longer writes about moral ambiguity. Gone is any semblance of the notion that a government and its emissaries in the secret services could ever be on the side of the individual. That’s been true for several novels—certainly since The Constant Gardener (2001)—but le Carré’s latest is perhaps the most definitive statement yet of his new worldview. It starts with a 2008 counterterrorism operation, code-named Wildfire, gone wrong. A team of agents, led by a British foreign minister and a private defense contractor, was charged with capturing a terrorist on the island of Gibraltar. Billed as a rousing success, the op was, in fact, a fiasco. Three years later, a now-disgraced British agent tells the real story to retired diplomat Sir Christopher Probyn, also involved in the mission but in the dark as to what actually happened. Probyn eventually teams with Toby Bell, secretary to the minister in charge of Wildfire. Bell, also in the dark, starts digging and finds he faces a personal crisis: expose the cover-up and scuttle his career or keep quiet. Whistle-blowers risking life and livelihood to bring evil bureaucrats to their knees have long been a staple of espionage fiction. In le Carré’s new world, however, evil bureaucrats never skin their knees; there are no happy endings, even attenuated ones. We commented in our 2008 review of le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man (a film version of which will open in the fall) on the slow, inexorable way that, in the novel, “institutional will grinds down individual lives.” That grinding process is even more brutal this time around, as le Carré further establishes himself as a master of a new, shockingly realistic kind of noir in which right-thinking individuals who challenge the institutional order of things always lose. No ambiguity there but plenty of gut-wrenching tragedy. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: It’s been nearly 50 years since le Carré broke through with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He has set the bar ever since for espionage fiction that appeals to head and heart rather than just quickening the reader’s pulse. --Bill Ott
Praise for A DELICATE TRUTH
“At the moment a new generation is stumbling upon his work, le Carré is still writing at something close to the top of his game…. [A Delicate Truth] is an elegant yet embittered indictment of extraordinary rendition, American right-wing evangelical excess and the corporatization of warfare. It has a gently flickering love story and jangling ending. And le Carré has not lost his ability to sketch, in a line or two, an entire character.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times Magazine
“The narrative dominoes fall with masterly precision....As ever, le Carré’s prose is fluid, carrying the reader toward an inevitable yet nail-biting climax.”—Olen Steinhauer, The New York Times Book Review (front page)
“Timelier than ever.”—The New York Times
“Well-wrought….A sharply sketched gallery of characters.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Le Carré is fiercely modern…a confluence of styles, voices, approaches….A novel that beckons us beyond any and all expectations.”—Washington Post
“[L]e Carré is...at full power with a book that draws on a career’s worth of literary skill and international analysis. No other writer has charted—pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers—the public and secret histories of his times.”—The Guardian (UK)
“Gorgeous writing. It’s sophisticated storytelling at its very best.”—USA Today
“A ripping, fun yarn.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Loyalty to the crown is tested; consciences are checked; and nothing is more terrifying than, as this novel’s protagonist puts it, ‘a solitary decider’ asking himself how on earth he talked himself into this mess.”—The Daily Beast
“A remarkably assured touch…. [Le Carré] has maintained full control of his prodigious literary talents.”—SF Gate
“The dirty deeds are brutal and crude. And so is the cover-up.”—The Huffington Post
“Heady and absorbing....John le Carré remains in full command of both the craft of writing and the art of espionage.”—Christian Science Monitor
“As fresh as today’s headlines….A ripping yarn in the le Carré tradition.”—Washington Times
“Le Carré further establishes himself as a master of a new, shockingly realistic kind of noir.”—Booklist (Starred)
“This is a guaranteed hair-raising cerebral fright, especially for anyone who enjoyed Robert Harris’s The Ghost or who just knows his or her email account has been hacked.”—Library Journal (Starred)
“Le Carré focuses on the moral rot and creeping terror barely concealed by the affable old-boy blather that marks the pillars of the intelligence community.”—Kirkus Reviews (Starred)
“A great story in sterling prose.”—Publishers Weekly
“Le Carré proves himself a master of character development.”—The Millions
“Another breathtakingly good work…. [the] story hurtles along with the speed of light.”—Newsday
“The upper register of a great writer’s oeuvre. Knowledge is not power in the novel: John le Carré believes that truth, difficult and generous on its own, can also kill you.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Characteristically clever.”—The Kansas City Star
“Stylish, taut storytelling….One of our finest writers.”—Tampa Bay Times
“Witty as it is insightful….A Delicate Truth is a delightful read that unnerves as it entertains.”—The Columbus Dispatch
“The master storyteller, le Carré, is still at war. His foes now are legion. But his battles, and his novels, are flooded with light and hope. He pins his faith, and that of his readers, on the fundamental decency of those most vulnerable and quirky of warriors – the average joes.”—OregonLive.com
“Expertly constructed and sharply detailed….How uncannily this [novel] reflects the headlines of the day.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Vintage le Carré.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“A career’s worth of literary skill and international analysis…..No other writer has chartered…the public and secret history of his times.”—The Guardian (UK)
“Remarkable….[A Delicate Truth] displays the mastery of the early and the passion of late Le Carré.”—Robert McCrum, The Observer (UK)
“Writing of such quality that…it will be read in one hundred years….[Le Carré] found his canvas in espionage, as Dickens did in other worlds. The two men deserve comparison.”—Daily Mail (UK)
“The tension ratchets up superbly as revelation follows on revelation….[Le Carré] is a writer of towering gifts, whose fiction appeals to a reading public both popular and serious….A talent to provoke as well as unsettle.”—The Independent (UK)
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We then go back in time to follow one Toby Bell, an employee in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who starts to suspect the cover-up by his employers, which resulted in the murder of two innocent people. The more Toby uncovers the more danger builds for him and others who were affected by the traumas of the botched operation.
John La Carre has no hesitation in exposing his views of the immorality of New Labour and the USA during the time of the first Gulf War and subsequently. Much is also made of the post-traumatic stress some Special Forces soldiers experience from involvement in their political masters dirty business.
As Toby and the daughter of one of the servants of the British Crown - now retired but involved in “Operation Wildfire” - uncover more truths and become aware of people silenced for fear of speaking out - and race against those who would silence them - we find ourselves racing towards a climax that leaves the reader both troubled and breathless.
La Carre leaves us with disturbed minds. Is this sort of thing going on today?
The author - in his 81st year - has produced his brilliant 23rd novel and, in my opinion, John La Carre has achieved with this one what he has achieved with all his previous novels, a story that exposes the lies, hypocrisy, greed, and immorality that is so commonplace in modern western politics.
A Delicate Truth is about a "semi off the books" undertaking to capture a terrorist (a so-called extraordinary rendition) who's been traced to Gibraltar. A British foreign office official is conscripted to observe the commando type action and report to his minister. It's a hush-hush quasi-legal plan that has implicit support of the British and American governments. Orchestrating the operation is a shadowy American defense corporation with ties to a right wing group with wealthy evangelist supporters. The plan utilizes military-style contractors to snatch the suspect from Gibraltar.
No surprise that the plan is bungled and the affair is covered up from public exposure.
Several years later, the foreign official and one of the commandos (who was on loan from his British army regiment) discover how wrong the affair went. They embark on an effort to bring the truth to light and in so doing encounter the wrath of the plan's sponsors who are determined to use any means to keep it secret.
LeCarre tells us through this story of the worrisome intertwining of governments and private contractors to carry out governmental functions. While one does not always trust governments to act legitimately and honestly, there is, at least in western democracies, the expectation that the public has standing to know and judge the government's actions and that boundaries set through the political processes really matter. The use of corporate entities (who have their own interests at their core) allows actions that transcend the moral constraints of government bodies. That corporations can and will transgress legal and ethical strictures is vividly portrayed through this novel.
The dilemma of the book's protagonists is an interesting parallel to Edward Snowden and the NSA revelations. Snowden (who was a private contractor) swore to keep his work secret. His conscience compelled him to break his oath and reveal aspects of intelligence gathering that have shocked the public and would bring about the sanction of the US government, if it could. Was he justified in his action? (To go far back in time, was so-called "Deep Throat" justified in bringing to light the illegal activities of Nixonites?) These are weighty matters that deserve deep thought.