John Le Carré, the master of espionage novels, is alive and well. And with “A Delicate Truth,” he proves yet again that though he is not just a 20th century or Cold War spy novelist.
“A Delicate Truth” is about an operation named Wildfire that takes place on Gibraltar and goes bad and a participant who doesn’t find that out until years later.
The story is also about Britain’s Official Secrets Act and about the willingness of individuals in positions of authority to use it to conceal everything from their mistakes to their treachery.
The participant is Sir Christopher “Kit” Probyn, who was knighted for his minor role in Wildfire, enjoyed a stint representing Her Majesty in the Caribbean and now is living the life of a retired public servant. He’s married to woman with a strong personality, and they have a strong-willed daughter named Emily, who’s a physician.
The Probyns are enjoying a local festival one day when they encounter a man named Jeb, whom Kit recognizes from operation Wildfire. Jeb, a dedicated but weary military veteran, insists on calling Probyn Paul, the alias he was given for the operation.
Jeb tells him that a woman and her child were killed in Wildfire, whose stated purpose – not achieved - had been to capture a high-profile terrorist. Kit doesn’t believe Jeb, but his wife and his daughter, impressed by Jeb, insist that Kit find out what really happened.
Kit enlists the help of Toby Bell, who at the time of Wildfire was the private secretary to the government minister who knew all about the operation. Trouble was, the minister pointedly left Toby out of the loop. At the time, Toby made an illegal tape
recording of a pertinent conversation for the sole reason that he knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t know what it was.
When Kit tells Toby about Jeb’s visit, Toby, though worried about what getting involved might mean for his career, joins Kit in his quest for the truth. The plot thickens when Kit, trying to reach Jeb by phone, is told by someone he believes is a doctor that Jeb had been admitted as a patient in a facility for the mentally ill.
Toby, meanwhile, visiting Jeb’s wife, learns that Jeb had killed himself. Jeb’s widow found that strange because her husband had been so looking forward to his next meeting with Kit. Kit, who is reluctant to trust Toby but has no alternative, is further worried that the young man might have “designs” on Emily. When Emily asks Toby whether this is true, he replies, “Probably.”
Toby knows he is getting close when he’s escorted into a car and taken to a private retreat. There, he’s reminded of the Official Secrets Act and told that he can profit handsomely if he lets Wildfire die. Toby rejects the offer, walks home, and is beaten nearly senseless when he enters his London flat.
The next voice he is conscious of is Emily’s, but he doesn’t want her to see him in his present condition. Nor does he want to put her at further risk. But she pounds on his door until he lets her in. Barely has she entered when there’s more pounding on Toby’s door. They worry it’s hired thugs returning to finish what they started earlier, but instead it’s a single man. He gives Emily a package for Toby. Maybe it contains a new lead, maybe it contains a bomb. In “A Delicate Truth,” as with so many Le Carre novels, anything is possible.
Also as is often the case with Le Carré’s novels, the plotting in “A Delicate Truth” is masterful, the characters multidimensional and the story uncomfortably real.
Walt Braun is the editorial page editor at the Manhattan Mercury.