A Delicate Truth (2013) is another of John le Carre’s standalone novels (as opposed to his George Smiley series), and firmly within the spy firmament for which he is so well known. This time round we follow in the footsteps of a young, ambitious foreign office official, Toby Bell. Bell is private secretary to a morally ambiguous FO minister, who’s particularly friendly with a defence contractor. The minister is embroiled in a botched mission in Gibraltar, involving our friend the defence contractor, which Bell only becomes aware of through a former diplomat, Sir ‘Kit’ Probyn. Probyn was on the ground during the operation and informs Bell that innocents were killed and that a cover-up is in play, leading to the death of others involved in the operation. Bell therefore finds himself at the centre of things and needs to decide whether to remain loyal to his minister or to blow the whistle.
Numerous reviews of this book suggest that this is Le Carre’s first true post-Cold War novel. I can’t really comment on that, having read a fair few but not all of Le Carre’s works. What is interesting however is that this novel feels the closest to reality. The Gibraltar operation isn’t a million miles off the notorious 1988 SAS operation, Flavius, which resulted in the supposedly unlawful deaths of three IRA members. The close relationship between a minister and defence contractor also finds art imitating life. Liam Fox MP resigned as defence secretary in 2011 following allegations his friend, a lobbyist, had inappropriate access via Fox to departmental meetings, and thus falling foul of the ministerial code. Lastly, the suicide of Dr David Kelley (whose death led to the Hutton Inquiry) also appears to be reflected in the book.
Ironically, the largest event in UK spying history (that we know of anyway!), the outing of the so-called Cambridge Five, including Kim Philby, as Russian spies, doesn’t have a parallel within A Delicate Truth. Spying within the upper echelons of the UK’s secret service has been a theme throughout le Carre’s novels, especially the Smiley series and he’s clearly made a conscious decision to keep the high-level skulduggery to a minimum, focussing on a relatively junior member of staff stuck between a rock and a hard place.
One of the things I most enjoy about le Carre’s novels is the high-level skulduggery, so it’s fair to say that I was a little disappointed, finding the subject of the book to be a little pedestrian compared to the full-on spy novels I’m accustomed to. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book, which has plenty to offer in terms of thrills, twists and turns, and at just over 300 pages is a pretty quick read. Recommended.