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How To Put This 'Delicate'-ly ... Not Le Carre's Best Work

Some novelists interest us because they turn the light of a style we enjoy on whatever subject they take up. Some novelists we enjoy because they have found a great subject and work it well and lovingly. John le Carre seems to belong to the latter group, having found his vein of fiction gold in the world of Cold War espionage. With The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, published in 1963, he began a productive streak that went for over two decades and gave us what is arguably the most intelligent and entertaining cache of fiction ever written about the Cold War and the world of intelligence gathering. If you already know his best work, the memory of its pleasures is something you won't easily forget: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), Smiley's People (1979), A Perfect Spy (1986) — what a quartet!

But as the Cold War waned, the honorable British novelist apparently felt as though he had to branch out into other areas of criminality and deception, taking as his subjects the proliferation of contemporary terrorism, international crime, corporate greed, bank fraud and political chicanery, and moving his field of action to other parts of the world, such as Chechnya, Africa and Panama. Grand subjects, interesting locations; unfortunately they haven't always made for the best fiction.

His novels shifted in tone as well, moving from the sure-footed seriousness of the best spy novels to, among other narrative problems, a dependence on irony — novels in which passages come close to parody. It's as if, without his great subject, he's unsure how to apply his fine narrative talents to the other great stories of his time. In books like The Tailor of Panama, Single & Single, The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man and Our Kind of Traitor, the dramatic action thins out and the great sense of urgency that drove his best books seems to have dissipated, if not evaporated altogether.

John le Carre began writing spy novels while he was working for the British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6. He is the author of over 20 novels.
C Anton Corbijn / Viking
John le Carre began writing spy novels while he was working for the British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6. He is the author of over 20 novels.

The latest novel from le Carre, A Delicate Truth, suffers from similar problems. When the book opens, a British civil servant with the code name "Paul" takes part in a bungled kidnapping plot in Gibraltar. An immediate problem arises in the telling of this: Because "Paul" doesn't really know what's going on in the nighttime caper, the reader becomes confused as well. As the book continues — despite the potentially hot storyline about operations in the field — the action takes place in various official and unofficial London offices and country homes. The fusion of character, loyalty and duty that earlier books articulated so dramatically in the course of field operations seems unsteady and out of focus. Here, personal ethics and loyalty to ideals take precedence over duty to country, as they do in some of the other novels from this period. There's nothing wrong with that in the abstract, but it seems as though le Carre can't find the handle that would let him turn it into suspenseful material.

The timeline in A Delicate Truth is also particularly confusing. Without the reader becoming aware of it until much later in the narrative, the second section — after the snafu in Gibraltar — takes us back to an earlier time and reintroduces "Paul" as his actual self, the diplomat Christopher Probyn. The point of view soon shifts again, to another character, a young British civil servant on the rise, Toby Bell, and to his investigation of the Gibraltar affair after the fact. Bell, for reasons of integrity and honor, tries, at great personal cost, to smoke out the facts of that misadventure, thus turning the spy narrative into something resembling a mystery.

By the last third of the book you may find yourself, as I was, fully engaged with the story — at last! — because the rot at the heart of the British system, the "Deep State" as le Carre calls it in this novel, does produce a certain fascination. The "Deep State," in all of its old-boy corruption and corporate criminality, may in the end hold up as a subject matter for le Carre. But, sorry to say, this novel and the others like it don't offer anywhere near the pacing, excitement and sense of revelation that made le Carre novels from the '70s and '80s such masterworks.

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Alan Cheuse
Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.