One of the more tiresome habits shared in recent years by publishers and reviewers alike has been the hailing of almost any new arrival in the thriller genre as “the new John le Carré”. Even ignoring the question of whether le Carré can really adequately be described merely as a thriller writer, the epithet is an empty one. It’s not that the “new le Carré” label has become so clichéd as to become meaningless (although it has); it’s more that, rather inconveniently for the aforementioned publishers and reviewers, and across the many years that they have been celebrating the birth of le Carré’s successors, the original has been producing novel after novel of such style and substance as the pretenders to his throne can but dream of.
Such is the case, once again, with the author’s twenty-third novel, A Delicate Truth. Le Carré has always had the uncanny ability not simply to capture the zeitgeist but also to anticipate it, and so it is here as a botched mission in Gibraltar provides the backdrop to a tirade against the privatisation of foreign policy, a blast at the anonymity and unaccountability of these private companies and, perhaps most presciently of all, a thesis on the moral quagmire through which the conscientious whistle-blower must struggle.
Whistle-blowers plural, to be precise, for protagonist duties are shared by Sir Christopher Probyn, retired British ambassador and Toby Bell, Private Secretary and rising star of the civil service. Both are typical le Carré characters, drawn with that now-familiar mixture of humour, cynicism and empathy. However, some of the depth and complexity of previous le Carré protagonists is, perhaps, sacrificed in the heat of the author’s rage against the corporate machine. A previous le Carré character once described the Cold War as “half-angels fighting half-devils” but there’s little of that moral ambiguity here. True, Bell does describe himself as “just a guilty bystander”, but for the most part we are left in no doubt as to which characters are the angels and which the devils. But perhaps le Carré, now in his eighties, has earned the occasional angry-old-man moment.
Such moments aside, age has done nothing to dim le Carré’s powers. Much of the complex plot exposition takes place in his characteristically witty and sharp dialogue, including one outstanding scene in which Toby listens to an illicit recording he has made of his political master in conversation with a shadowy private contractor, filling in the blanks and adding narrative detail himself so that, through his imaginative re-construction of the event, we feel we are in the very room, listening to the original conversation. In another tour-de-force scene we are swept through the village fair at St Pirran with Sir Christopher as he carries out his official role of “Opener”: “Sample piccalilli: tasteless but keep grinning. Smoked salmon pate excellent…Ex-tea planter George keeps a loaded rifle at his bedside for the day the masses assemble at his gates. His wife, Lydia, bores for the village. Advance on them with outstretched arms…” It’s typical le Carré, the prose positively sparkling and fizzing away whether as comic interlude or serious action.
Serious for the most part, though. There are times, indeed, when le Carré dances dangerously close to invective, but it is difficult not to share his evident outrage towards a world which has got its priorities so mixed up that, in the name of protecting our freedom, the amoral can act with impunity and take refuge behind secrecy laws whilst these same laws can be deployed against those who are, in fact, standing up for that very freedom. It is, of course, a very current debate. That le Carré can arouse our sympathies so strongly stands testament both to his undiminished literary prowess and to his longstanding status as the chronicler of the state-of-the-nation. Pretenders to the throne beware. The King is very much alive. Long live the King.