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Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Book review: A Delicate Truth, John Le Carre (2013)

This lovely novel situates itself in two periods of time within recent history, starting with the aggressive post-9/11 hubris of New Labour. It opens with Paul Anderson, alias of Kit Probyn, an undistinguished functionary in the Foreign Office, acting as the ears and eyes on the ground in Gibraltar for Fergus Quinn, the foreign minister, in an official - but deniable - rendition/kill operation against a terror target. Operation Wildlife involves delisted members of the UK special forces and mercenaries from Ethical Outcomes, a Texas-based private intelligence and enforcement provider. The squadies go in but then Paul/Kit is whisked away.

The narrative then takes up with Toby Bell, a rising star in the Foreign Office, who works as private secretary to Quinn. Bell is suspicious of his boss and takes actions - including activating a listening device in Quinn's office during a planning meeting for Operation Wildlife - that serve to raise the levels of tension in the book. But then he, too, is whisked away and posted elsewhere. He never forgets Quinn though or indeed Jay Crispin, an employee of Ethical Outcomes he meets in Quinn's offices.

The story then takes up with Probyn on his Cornwall estate following his leaving the Foreign Office as Sir Christopher. Plum overseas postings after Operation Wildlife have set him up nicely with a state pension that he can enjoy in his retirement. But one day he comes face to face with Jeb Owen, one of the special forces soldiers from Operation Wildlife. Jeb has set himself up as an itinerant leatherworker with a well-equipped van, and he tells Kit in an oblique fashion that Operation Wildlife had deleterious outcomes that noone admitted to at the time. Were Kit's cushy postings awarded on the back of the murder of an innocent woman and her child? When Kit's wife Suzanna gets wind of the truth Le Carre sets in train a series of events that pull Probyn and Bell closer and closer together, and deeply involve also Kit's doctor daughter Emily.

Extraordinary rendition, extrajudicial murder, private defense contractors and the like have been elements of public debate for some years, notably in the follow-up to the 9/11 attacks when the US went frankly mental. Le Carre has woven such concepts into a story that implicates the UK government in very immoral - and also illegal - activities, in his new book. The final chapters contain some wonderful writing about how whistleblowers get routinely treated by government, and even at the end we do not know what's in store for Toby and Kit as the security forces arrive with their sirens wailing.

The book also plays around the margins of internal and public routes available to whistleblowers, bringing to mind the actions in the real world involving WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. There is a wonderful scene when Kit approaches the Foreign Office with his concerns about Operation Wildlife and is treated very roughly by two grey bureaucrats intent on protecting their august institution and the politicians at its head. In fact the emotional and slightly unstable Kit is a wonderful character from Le Carre even if it's the more substantial and reliable Toby we are asked to barrack for in the end.

The unsettling Crispin and his various organisations that work closely with governments like the UK's is also a treat, although you do wonder if companies such as Ethical Outcomes can possibly be as sinister as Le Carre paints this one. But this is drama and so it doesn't matter. Also he does so often, Le Carre is able to render the larger, global action in terms of the relationships between private individuals. The stresses and anxieties that they feel come to the fore, and so this is both an unsettling and enjoyable book that served, at least in my case, to import for a limited period of time some of the anxieties of the War on Terror, into my living room. A great read.

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