I’ve been a fan of John le Carré’s for a very long time, especially of the Smiley novels. I know that Smiley had to be put out to grass when the Cold War finished, but – I imagine like le Carré himself – I mourned his eclipse and secretly I’ve always hoped that Smiley will enjoy some kind of reinvention one day. In the meantime, his creator has had to tackle the problem of how to write about espionage and amoral acts of skulduggery without the wonderfully ambiguous backdrop of East-West relations to sustain him. (This leads me to hope, in passing, that perhaps in some future book he may take as his topic Putin’s Russia and its significance for present-day relations between the East and the West.)
Meantime, I’ve been a faithful reader of the post-Smiley le Carré novels, but I have to confess that, although every one of them is skilfully put together and tells a cracking tale of intrigue, mystery, vice and complicated modern moral issues, I haven’t enjoyed any of them as much as the chronicles of the lugubrious George Smiley and his flawed but semi-likeable nemesis, Karla. It was therefore not exactly with misgiving, but with a resigned knowledge of knowing more or less what to expect, that I began to read A Delicate Truth.
Oh me of little faith! This novel is a masterpiece. It begins in Gibraltar, with a man who is only half in the know masquerading as someone called ‘Paul’. He has been persuaded to carry out an assignment that seems to consist of very little except several days of near-terminal boredom spent in a seedy hotel, followed by one burst of swift, strenuous activity, handsome remuneration and repatriation. Paul is mostly in the dark about the true nature of the assignment, yet he accomplishes it (rather gracelessly), picks up his financial reward and goes home to his comfortable middle-class, Middle England existence. He is a little uneasy that something about the assignment didn’t exactly go as planned, but he soon persuades himself to forget about it.
Fast forward three years. Paul’s identity and his home circumstances are gradually revealed. Another man who was involved in the assignment turns up at his house and his club and then mysteriously ‘commits suicide’. Paul is challenged with some uncomfortable assertions about what it was that went wrong in Gibraltar and has to swallow his cowardice and inclination to turn a blind eye to find out if they are true.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot, as that would spoil it for those who have not yet read the book – which I recommend them to do at the earliest opportunity. I’ll therefore conclude by saying that A Delicate Truth shows le Carré in top form again. He’s created a subtle and complex group of characters who together grapple with that most fundamental of issues, the nature of good and evil. As I’ve said, it’s a masterpiece.
Nevertheless, I’d still love to believe that one day I might enjoy a further dose of old Smiley!