A Delicate Truth

A Delicate Truth

3.5 38
by John le Carré

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A counter-terrorist operation, code-named Wildlife, is being mounted on the British crown colony of Gibraltar.  Its purpose: to capture and abduct a high-value jihadist arms buyer. Its authors: an ambitious Foreign Office Minister, a private defense contractor who is also his bosom friend, and a shady American CIA operative of the evangelical

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A counter-terrorist operation, code-named Wildlife, is being mounted on the British crown colony of Gibraltar.  Its purpose: to capture and abduct a high-value jihadist arms buyer. Its authors: an ambitious Foreign Office Minister, a private defense contractor who is also his bosom friend, and a shady American CIA operative of the evangelical far-right. So delicate is the operation that even the Minister’s personal private secretary, Toby Bell, is not cleared for it.

Three years later, a disgraced Special Forces Soldier delivers a message from the dead. Was Operation Wildlife the success it was cracked up to be—or a human tragedy that was ruthlessly covered up? Summoned by Sir Christopher “Kit” Probyn, retired British diplomat, to his decaying Cornish manor house, and closely observed by Kit’s daughter, Emily, Toby must choose between his conscience and duty to his Service. If the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing, how can he keep silent?

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Editorial Reviews

From Absolute Friends (2003) on — through The Mission Song (2006), A Most Wanted Man (2008), Our Kind of Traitor (2010), and now A Delicate Truth — John le Carré's novels have increasingly reflected their author's conviction that both Great Britain and the United States have been evolving toward fascism. The books' plots have involved the rigged state of perpetual war and its attendant blights of secrecy, fear, extra-judicial apprehension, imprisonment, and killing, an accommodating and/or pusillanimous press, lickspittle government functionaries, and the licentious congress of business and the government. But even to one who shares le Carré's bleak outlook, A Delicate Truth seems crippled as a work of fiction by the weight of its author's dismay. Less than a novel — or at least less than the sort of novel le Carré is capable of — it is an instructive mock-up of the insalubrious effects of the privatized "war on terror."

That's the bad news; the good is that, despite its inadequacies, the book still displays le Carré's gift for summoning characters out of social types with a few deadly swipes of his pen and a mimic's ability to nail down their personalities and worldviews with a few passages of speech. Indeed, A Delicate Truth serves up such a bouncing bevy of bullies, trimmers, and cynics as to bring wicked joy to the gloomiest heart. Among them is a penny-ante junior minister, Fergus Quinn, MP, "Fergie to the world-a Scottish brawler, a self-styled bête intellectuelle of the New Labour stable." With "close-cropped ginger hair and quick greedy eyes set in a pugilist's face," he has a "carefully nurtured Glaswegian accent." Folded into Quinn's man- of-the-people bluntness is the necessary ingredient of Blairish waffle, such terms as "core values" and "fully appreciative of your concerns." Naturally, steeped as he is in the doctrines of market efficiencies, Quinn holds an MBA view of national defense: "Private defense contractors?. Name of the game these days. War's gone corporate, in case you haven't noticed. Standing professional armies are a bust. Top-heavy, under-equipped, one brigadier for every dozen boots on the ground, and cost a mint."

Quinn has a scheme up his sleeve involving the "extraordinary rendition," "abstraction" or "exfiltration" — kidnapping, in a word - - of an arms supplier whose clients are terrorists. It's a bit ticklish, a black op, actually, to be executed on what is considered British soil. The miscreant is supposedly holed up in Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, and will be snatched by British Special Forces, the men temporarily discharged for form's sake (i.e., deniability) and handed over to mercenaries just offshore working for an outfit called Ethical Outcomes, the brainchild of a shady operator called Jay Crispin ("Third son of a posh Anglo-American family. Best schools. Sandhurst at second attempt. Ten years of bad soldiering. Retirement at forty. We're told voluntary, but one doubts it. Bit of City. Dumped. Bit of spying. Dumped. Sidles up alongside our burgeoning terror industry. Rightly observes that defence contractors are on a roll. Smells the money. Goes for it. Hullo, Ethical Outcomes.") The whole business, which includes sweeteners for Quinn among others, is being funded by a wealthy American right-wing evangelical Christian. Also involved on the ground is a British diplomatic lifer, code name Paul Anderson. This is Kit Probyn, late fifties, "a reliable has-been," an "honest-to- God Foreign Service dobbin," and honorable to the point of near imbecility, who hasn't a clue about what's really going on.

It's not easy for the reader to see why Probyn is really necessary to the caper (for which he is rewarded with a Caribbean commissionership and a knighthood), except if he were not, the scales could not fall from his eyes and the plot, such as it is, wouldn't get off the ground. Even so, it needs another career diplomat, young Toby Bell, Quinn's private secretary, to apply jumper cables. Toby, who has expunged "the brand marks" of his humble-ish birth from his tongue and his manner, is a man with prospects. He has been the protégé of a slippery Foreign Office éminence grise who has schooled him in diplomatic discretion or what a layperson might call cynicism. Still, Toby, who has been increasingly left in the dark by Quinn, is not, despite the lessons of the master, bereft of a sense of duty. He takes it into his head to record Quinn's secret meeting with Probyn, using an ancient recording device that, to the reader's surprise, still works. After some extracurricular sleuthing on Toby's part and in the fullness of time (three years), one of the Special Forces operatives shows up to spill the beans about what really went down at Gibraltar: a fatal fiasco. Toby and Kit — and eventually Kit's attractive physician daughter — begin to drill their way through layers of cover-up, including that of another murder.

This is a plot that must be viewed through a layer of gauze to blur its makeshift quality, but what is palpable throughout is the grid of powerful interests that increasingly operate with impunity in our world, a presence Toby calls Britain's "Deep State": "the ever- expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who [are] cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster." What kept me reading, however, are le Carré's characters, deftly painted with the shades of their social class and ideological markings set out with the author's customary high-spirited brio.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“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 (front page)

“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

“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
“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

“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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A Delicate Truth: A Novel 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A Delicate Truth is a total joy to read. Classic in style while remaining current with wonderful characters as only le Carre can create. The exploration of ' soldiers for hire' supported financially by wealthy political blocs with an agenda is fascinating and their collaboration with duplicitous politicians elected to 'serve' from both sides of the ocean is perfection. As always le Carre has a deft understanding of the capacity for those in power to justify anything and for those who serve to be outraged and sometimes do something. I know I will read this again as I have so many of le Carre's creations, just to savor his style and descriptive sentences -such beautiful sentences- that make one go back just to taste them again !
tedfeit0 More than 1 year ago
In the present atmosphere of clandestine operations, the result of which the public has been ill-informed and too often kept in the dark, John Le Carre has fashioned a novel built around a bungled black op covered up for three years. The story begins with the hatching of “Operation Wildfire,” comprising British special force soldiers and American mercenaries employed by a private company. The aim is to capture an arms dealer who, according to intelligence, is to visit the British colony of Gibraltar. A Foreign Office functionary is selected to be the on-the-spot eyes-and-ears for a minister of Her Majesty, nominally in charge of the operation. Like many such actions, it results in failure, but is declared a total success, despite the fact that two innocents are killed and the subject never captured. Three years later, various persons, directly or tangentially, separately begin to question the silence and attempt to uncover the facts. The promised “transparency” never seems to arrive. After a somewhat muddled beginning, in which Mr. Le Carre jumps all around, a bit confusing to the reader, he begins to move the plot straightforwardly and with dispatch. The author raises the basic question of right and wrong, also lambasting the use of private armies to wage “little wars” around the globe and old boy networks where mistakes are covered up and witnesses bought off. A topic that is, unhappily, very timely. Recommended.
Patarma6 More than 1 year ago
A very fine example of the kind of self-serving chicanery that may never see the light of day. One has to wonder whether or not "fiction" is a vehicle to reveal a "truth".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to work to read this book but it was worth it. The problem was the many characters he introduced. I finally kept a written list of their names and referred to the list when I got confused.
emeka More than 1 year ago
le Carre returns to the yarns and convoluted stories which we so much enjoy. His characters are believable and true to form . There are no great surprises but a warm feeling of a good read .
CMAJORME More than 1 year ago
Author usually subtle ironic but this is perfunctory,a screed that has, of late become his Output. I long for the early LeCarres return.
MartaGS More than 1 year ago
Very up-to-date but not as psychologically grabbing as his earlier books.
smjazz More than 1 year ago
Some of LeCarre's recent novels have been thin on the character development and plot twists that have distinguished his earlier work. While perhaps still not as gripping as the Smiley trilogy, A Delicate Truth was for me his best work in a number of years. The main characters are more fully developed and we learn more about them and in the case of Kit his family. The nature of the story and its moral are very apropos in today's world of hidden government and private contractors. And the ending was just right for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Exceptional.  Would that our elected leaders would read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Return to fine form This is Le Carré's best novel since The Constant Gardener. He is my favorite contemporary writer, and I read all his books. In my opinion, Le Carré's output was somewhat erratic in late 80s and 90s, as the Cold War ended. Still fine novels, interesting reads, but not on par with his Smiley classics of 1970s. Then, Le Carré had a hit in The Constant Gardener - his best novel, I think, since The Little Drummer Girl. It was followed by a number of rather less enticing stories. And now, finally, A Delicate Truth: edgy, well-constructed, spot-on story of post-recession, post-privacy, post-democracy world of corporate power that we live in. This is just as relevant as The Constant Gardener was 12 years ago and, if anything, is even better laid out, but just as chillingly realistic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent read
Fyodor More than 1 year ago
This is a fabulous read. If you like well-plotted novels with memorable characters, you'll love this book. Le Carre has never been better. Dale
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