I've never felt that John le Carre's post-Cold War thrillers were as good as his earlier novels; but A delicate truth comes pretty close. The novel opens on the rock of Gibraltar where a lowly member of MI6, on the verge of retirement, is monitoring an operation to snatch an alleged terrorist and hand him over to American secret forces. It's clear early on that something is not quite right about the operation, but it is revealed later in the novel that the operation was flawed from the start based on some extremely dodgy intelligence, that the powers-that-be, both in the UK and the US were only too eager to believe (sound familiar?).

There is a further twist to this operation though in that it goes cataclysmically wrong, unbeknown at the time to Kit Probyn, the would-be spy, trying to do his best for his country. When the full extent of what has happened is revealed to him, he tries to make amends, and draws in Toby Bell, a member of the Foreign Office and MI6, who was also involved very peripherally in the original operation. As Toby and Kit both endeavour to reveal the truth behind Operation Wildfire, the security services, determined that an embarrassing truth will not be revealed, are on their track...

I think why this novel works so well is because the protagonists are good men, trying to do their best against a background of corruption. Kit is a Smiley type figure, old school, brought up to be loyal to his country and its government; but he is also someone who happens to believe that his government is on the side of the angels, and would never become involved in shady dealings. Toby is in some ways a younger version of Kit, albeit from a different social background. Toby, however, is more aware of the corruption within government, but like Kit wants atonement for the mistakes of Operation Wildfire.

The novel is a damning indictment of a corrupt state. And contrasts startlingly with earlier novels such as the Smiley canon, where the state was seen as a positive force for good. Here, it is saved despite itself by the good men who work for it, who haven't been suborned by its corruption.

Depending on your politics, you will probably either love this novel and think that it's a perhaps not entirely inaccurate reflection of an increasingly Orwellian state; or will think that Le Carre has completely lost his marbles and, of course, nothing like that could ever happen here. I leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide...


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