A midlevel bureaucrat in the British foreign ministry is recruited for a counterterrorist operation -- code name Wildlife -- in the crown colony of Gibraltar. The ostensible purpose is to capture a jihadist arms buyer. The bureaucrat is given a false name, Paul Anderson, and told little more than to follow instructions as they are given to him. Wildlife is so secret that not even the foreign minister's private secretary, Toby Bell, is told the details.
"A DELICATE TRUTH"
By John le Carre
The operation takes place, and is declared a success. "It was a triumph. Right?" Paul asks one of his superiors. "No casualties. We did a great job."
Paul is honored with a knighthood for his efforts, and sent on to a cushy new mission in the Caribbean. He resumes his real name and three years later, retires with his wife, to an elegant mansion in Cornwall. The opening chapter, which describes Operation Wildlife in excruciating detail, is a mini-masterpiece that might well stand as a short story on its own.
In typical le Carre fashion, the narrative moves decisively, with unexpected revelation on just about every page, and terse dialogue that defines each major character. Anyone who has experienced this popular author's previous works, however, will know that Paul Anderson is not destined to live out his life in peace and tranquility.
The narrative moves on to Toby Bell, who, throughout this time has been feeling slighted in his job and suspects that he has been left out of the loop. The minister has taken to having meetings in his office with the door closed and locked, and going out for business lunches in restaurants where he has not been seen. Toby has worked his way up the diplomatic ladder to his present post of private secretary to the minister by keeping his mouth shut and ignoring moral dilemmas.
One day, Toby is assigned to go down to a back entrance and ascertain that all the surveillance cameras are turned off for the duration of an important meeting. Toby manages to activate an old tape recorder in the minister's desk drawer, and when he later retrieves it, learns a lot of things he does not like.
Toby knows, of course, that what he has done is criminal, and if discovered, could cost him his job and land him in prison. When he starts asking subtle questions, he is demoted and eventually replaced.
Back in Cornwall, three years later, Paul Anderson encounters a leather monger selling goods out of his beat-up old truck at the town's annual fair. The vendor approaches him, calling him by his old code name, Paul, and when Paul's wife purchases a handbag, he places a sales slip inside the bag.
It turns out to be not a sales slip at all, but a note describing the deaths of two innocent people, the disgrace of a soldier who did his duty, and the knighthood of Paul. Among the many implications is that Paul was given his Caribbean assignment in exchange for silence.
How the paths of the scrupulous Paul and the equally honorable Toby converge is a little contrived, but their lives do intertwine, and the suspense mounts. From there on, however, the author increasingly strains our credulity, with farfetched romantic entanglements for Toby and a confusing ending that leaves too many questions unresolved.
Still, there's no denying that "A Delicate Truth" is an irresistible page turner, and that much, if not all of the book, is vintage le Carre.
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.