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Book review: A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

Though the prolific espionage writer maintains command of a thorny subject, in his most recent piece of brainy fiction, le Carré's reach falls short.

Photograph: Jessica Lin

By John le Carré. Viking, $29.

Capitalism and politics go toe-to-toe in John le Carré’s latest caper, A Delicate Truth. The prolific espionage writer best known for his Smiley novels—a series of Cold War tales following a fictional MI6 master spy—here tackles a new world order, in which reliable intelligence proves elusive and military maneuvers increasingly devolve into skirmishes between private sector hired guns.

Three years ago, an aggressive minister of the British Foreign Office colluded with both the American government and private interests to stage Wildfire, a highly secretive counterterrorism operation in the British colony of Gibraltar. Wildfire was officially deemed a success, earning the minister’s eyes on the ground a cushy sinecure befitting his guilelessness. Disgruntled insiders, however, insist the operation yielded different results and threaten to blow the whistle; this would expose an embarrassing, and potentially catastrophic, cover-up. Now, Toby Bell, an up-and-comer in the Foreign Office, must decide whether or not it’s worth sacrificing a promising career to uncover the truth of what happened.

Typical of Le Carré’s brand of brainy fiction, A Delicate Truth aspires to something grander than cheap thrills; the author maintains command of a subject that every day proves more complex, cynical and opaque. But this time, the novelist’s reach falls short. War may have gone to the mercenaries, but just as the Soviet operatives in Le Carré’s earlier novels refrained from presenting simple quandaries of good versus evil, so, too, should agents of privatization resist easy generalizations. Much about a for-profit war machine deserves criticism, but Toby and company appear all too eager to don metaphorical white and black hats. We get the broad moral brush when a finer-edged ambiguity would’ve better served.

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