JOHN le Carre survived the end of the Cold War, the basis for his best-known spy novels, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and the Smiley trilogy, by skilful writing and because political intrigue and treachery never die.
He turned his sights on Panama (The Tailor of Panama) and Africa (The Constant Gardener) and both books became movies. Part of the Smiley trilogy, which was made into an acclaimed BBC miniseries, was recently remade as a movie, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A film adaptation of A Most Wanted Man will be released this year.
In A Delicate Truth, his 23rd novel, the great English spywatcher tells a tale of coverup in the British Foreign Office, familiar ground for him, and introduces more modern villains in the guise of multinational (read American) mercenaries, private armies in the battle against international terrorism. It won't be made into a movie.
An ambitious junior minister in the Foreign Office, Fergus Quinn, and an American private defence contractor called Ethical Outcomes, fronted by a shady character, hatch a plan to snatch a jihadist arms buyer from Gibraltar, British territory, to be interrogated elsewhere -- somewhere less public.
Minister Quinn arranges for British SAS soldiers to take part in Operation Wildlife on Gibraltar while the U.S. operative has a team offshore ready to move in and take the terrorist back to their ship and away. The minister also sends a low-level Foreign Office employee to be his eyes and ears on the ground.
The Brits, who are watching the safe house where the arms buyer and seller are expected to meet, are reluctant to move in on Quinn's orders because it is unclear if the target is really there.
The mercenaries land, forcing the Brits' hand, and the flunky sees some commotion, but is whisked away by other British agents who tell him the operation was a success.
Jump ahead three years and questions begin to arise over whether Wildlife really was a success, or a debacle quickly covered up.
Toby Bell, Quinn's private secretary at the time, was kept out of the loop but has incriminating information. One of the soldiers involved in Wildlife turns up dead, and Bell and a retired British diplomat try to raise the alarm over the operation and its coverup.
Le Carre uses his sterling prose to tell a good story, albeit one with more obfuscation by government officials than action by intelligence operatives. The characters are generally well-drawn, except the immoral Americans who come off as buffoons.
Of course, after three years the British Foreign Office establishment has a great deal invested in the coverup and appears willing to resort to pretty much anything to stop the whistle-blowing pair.
Le Carre handles the end-of-book suspense well, but there is no doubt of the outcome.
You can't really lose reading a writer of le Carre's ability, but sometimes it's a narrow win.
Chris Smith is a Free Press copy editor.