When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, some observers who might have had their priorities a little scrambled expressed concern that the end of the Cold War would be a devastating blow to spy fiction. As far as most of the reading public is concerned, this amounted to a concern that it would be a devastating blow to John Le Carré. Twenty-four years later, it seems clear enough that the Cold War needed Le Carré more than Le Carré needed—or wanted—it. The hero of Le Carré’s 1989 novel, The Russia House, ends up betraying British intelligence and the CIA for the sake of the woman he loves. And he does it with a clear conscience, not because he thinks there is no moral difference between the West and the Soviet Union, but because what George Smiley used to call the “Great Game” is winding down, and enough innocent lives have been pointlessly ground up in the process. It’s time to abandon patriotism when it gets in the way of basic decency.
The 1990 movie version of The Russia House, one of the best film adaptations of a Le Carré novel, got in just under the wire; it was still timely when it opened. The 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Gary Oldman as Smiley, which is the other best film adaptation of a Le Carré novel, was a period piece, a gripping depiction of institutional paranoia, murderous office politics, and what passed for men’s haircuts in 1973. But Le Carré doesn’t write about that world anymore. He found other things for his spies to get their hands dirty over, or he focused on other villains altogether (such as Big Pharma in 2001’s The Constant Gardener). Then, starting with 2003’s Absolute Friends, Le Carré turned his attention to the War On Terror. It was the perfect subject for a thriller writer who had always been less interested in derring-do than the human cost of playing spy in real life, and the dangers of believing that the enemy is so much more evil than anything seen before that he can’t be fought according to the traditional rules.
A Delicate Truth, Le Carré’s new novel, opens in 2008, in Gibraltar, the site of a British-American counter-terrorism operation called Operation Wildfire. The opening chapter is seen through the eyes of a British diplomat whose faith in his bosses and eagerness to be seen as committed to anti-terrorism mark him as a guileless company man, fated to fall upward as a reward for not asking too many questions. Three years later, this aging innocent’s composure is ruffled by Toby Bell, a rising young foreign servant who is “that most feared creature of our contemporary world: a solitary decider.” (Using one of George W. Bush’s favorite self-descriptive nouns is probably not a coincidence.) When Toby, who is working on a novel in his spare time, compares notes with the now-retired diplomat, who is closer in age to the 81-year-old Le Carré, the effect is less reminiscent of Butch and Sundance and more as if the former intelligence officer Le Carré is writing a fantasy about both his younger self and the man he might have become if he’d stayed in the game and never wised up.
A Delicate Truth moves easily back and forth between different points of view and different time frames—present tense, past tense, first person, second person—and Le Carré may have learned something from the best movies based on his books: The novel moves like a shot, especially when compared to some of the George Smiley books, whose languorous pacing and writerly digressions helped those critics who first identified the author as something other than a “mere” genre novelist. There’s nothing complacent about A Delicate Truth. Like Le Carré’s other recent books about the War On Terror, there’s a white-hot anger at its core, but Le Carré has finally learned how to channel that anger into furl for the narrative; there’s no editorializing to gum up the storytelling, as happened with Absolute Friends and A Most Wanted Man. It’s one of the best recent thrillers about high-level cover-ups, and Le Carré’s best book since 1986’s A Perfect Spy.