Half a century ago, John LeCarré’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” topped the bestseller charts. The grim and realistic picture of Cold War espionage that this Berlin thriller created was a game-changer. It revealed the British Secret Service and its Soviet bloc counterparts locked in a struggle for information, mirrored reflections of one another. Far from extolling the blessings of democracy and the superiority of the West, “The Spy” and the many LeCarré novels that followed it showed that the Secret Service had the moral code of a set of chessmen.
Amid the weary pessimism that seems to be the prevailing mood of all of LeCarré’s spies, there runs a strong strain of loyalty and faith, if not to institutions, then to the decent people caught up in the spy intrigues. LeCarré’s latest novel, “A Delicate Truth,” set largely in England, concerns a botched operation and its coverup. The newly appointed Minister of State, a belligerent Scot, has engaged a “private defense contractor” — a company named Ethical Outcomes — to remove a jihadist weapons purchaser, code name “Punter.” To provide political cover, he appoints a career desk-man — no experience in the field — to be his on-site liaison. When the operation goes bad, the minister makes a hasty and lucrative career change to corporate security. (Indeed, in LeCarré’s recent novels, the corporate world and government are hard to distinguish from one another. As one character says, “War’s gone corporate, in case you haven’t noticed.”)
Yet not all of the players involved in this operation are so easily able to walk away, and therein lies the story. What was the conclusion to “Punter”? The “truth” in this tense and hypnotic novel is murky and hard to access. Just as intelligence gatherers must sift information, question motives, penetrate cover stories — travel from befuddlement to enlightenment — readers who enter LeCarré’s world find themselves on the periphery of a need-to-know culture, an environment where secrets and misinformation are the norm.
For many years, LeCarré has written novels about characters who keep faith and value personal loyalty in a world that has devalued these qualities. His latest novel, intricately plotted and thoroughly engrossing, affirms the value of crying out the truth, be it ever so delicate.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.