This is my review of A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré.
Fergus Quinn, an ambitious New Labour Foreign Office minister, picks a biddable Whitehall bureaucrat to oversee "Wildlife", a sensitive counter-terrorism operation – an odd choice, since "birdwatcher Paul Anderson", does not have a clue what is going on, before, during or after an exercise that goes badly awry. So, after accepting a clearly undeserved promotion into a sinecure followed by lord-of-the-manor retirement in a decaying Cornish mansion, what could induce "Anderson" to become a whistleblower? The same could be asked of the hardbitten commando employed in the secret operation, and of young Private Secretary, Tony Bell, whom Quinn tries to keep out of the loop altogether.
This is the basis for a gripping modern thriller with a mission to arouse our consciences over such issues as the erosion of democracy, the corrupt involvement of corporate power in government e.g. for defence contracts, the frightening power of intelligence organisations to spy on ordinary people in the name of national security.
My problem was an inability to believe in much of the dialogue – artificial, with too many characters speaking in the same upper crusty old Etonian voice, or in some Monty Pythonesque portrayal of "a working man". Le Carré gives the impression of being slightly out of touch, as with the school teacher who talks of teaching "arithmetic up to A Level". Most characters are thinly developed, and heavily stereotyped. Frequent placing of important conversations in flashbacks reduces the potential dramatic tension. There is too much "telling", often repeating what the reader already knows. Plot content is slim, and as other reviewers have said, even the wrong at the heart of the novel, although shocking, seems insufficient to awaken consciences to the extent of creating whistleblowers prepared to stake all. Is Le Carré resting too much on his laurels in this latest work?
Chapter 2 provides a lengthy telling of Tony Bell's rapid rise, mentored and advanced by the caricatured éminence grise mandarin, Giles Oakley. At one point, Tony acts out of character, also giving a hint of things to come, with an inward diatribe against the immorality of the Iraq War, including special condemnation of Tony Blair, whose "public postures are truthless". This sounds like Le Carré indulging in a personal rant of his own. Truth being stranger than fiction, it might have been more effective to produce a non-fiction analysis.
I could only cope with the first part of the book by treating it as a parody of upper class, or would-be establishment figures fudging truth and sacrificing principles for the sake of a cushy life.
In the final chapters, where the key players belatedly try to take responsibility and expose the truth, Le Carré creates a real sense of menace and tension. Is struggle futile or will they be able to have the last word? If so, at what personal cost? With the end in sight, the quality of Le Carré's prose improves to what one has hoped for. "What the gods and all reasonable humans fought in vain wasn't stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, blood indifference to anybody's interests but their own".
Although style and structure often make for an irritating read, it seems a good choice for a book group, both as regards discussion of issues, and exchange of what are likely to be conflicting opinions on the quality of the writing.