"A Delicate Truth" by John le Carre; Viking (320 pages, $28.95)
John le Carre has been churning out spy novels for more than 50 years. His latest, the characteristically clever "A Delicate Truth," suggests that in an era of stateless terrorists, politically powerful defense contractors and war by remote control, his job is more complicated than ever.
Take his depiction of Toby Bell and Giles Oakley, a pair of sneaky sorts who happen to be among the book's key figures.
"Are Toby and Giles spies?" le Carre asks.
The reader would be forgiven for thinking so. After all, Bell and Oakley conduct top-secret meetings, cling to nuggets of need-to-know information and generally carry themselves like the deep-cover moles in famed le Carre novels such as "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "The Constant Gardener."
Yet even as they skulk about, Bell and Oakley aren't double agents, le Carre explains, but "blue-chip British career diplomats who have found themselves, like many others, at the trading tables of the free world's vast intelligence marketplace."
For practical purposes, this means that over the course of "A Delicate Truth," both will come to possess the sort of information that can get a man killed _ or, if handled cynically, promoted. Bell, the novel's conscience, is the one to watch here.
Not quite the dashing spy novel archetype _ le Carre describes the 31-year-old as "stocky in build, not particularly handsome, with a shock of unruly brown hair that went haywire as soon as it was brushed" _ Bell has begun building what figures to be a solid career.
Or so it seems, until he finds himself serving as the right-hand man to Fergus Quinn, a savvy politician who's recently landed a plum Foreign Office post. Paired by the whims of government bureaucrats, the new colleagues never hit it off, largely because Quinn makes it his duty to keep Bell out of the loop.
What's Quinn hiding? His friends and his recent past, for a start.
After some snooping, Bell learns that Quinn's compatriots include a handful of unsavory, if deeply influential, American defense contractors. In addition to taking bribes in exchange for state secrets, Quinn seems to have orchestrated an off-the-books military operation that would surely cause a big scandal if the press ever got wind of it.
The mission, meant to eliminate a suspected Middle Eastern terrorist who made the mistake of setting foot on the British territory of Gibraltar, went terribly awry. Two were killed, neither of them terrorists. A conspiracy to hide all the evidence has managed to keep things quiet.
But now, with assistance from an ex-ambassador named Kit Probynn _ one of Quinn's guilt-stricken former collaborators _ Bell aims to expose the bungled mission.
Bell is a capable leading man, but "A Delicate Truth" derives its greatest strengths from le Carre's expertise in half a century's worth of spycraft _ and his facility for finding inspiration in both contemporary news stories and the cat-and-mouse spy schemes of yore.
This is a novel in which soldiers of fortune _ hardened by time on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, and equipped with all the latest espionage tools and remotely operated killing devices _ try to carry out a thoroughly modern military operation. But it also happens to be a book that harbors great affection for the timeworn trappings of another era.
And so it is that le Carre, 81, himself an ex-intel agent with the British spy agency MI6, reserves a special place in his narrative for "(a) Cold War-era, pre-digital, industrial-sized tape recorder _ an apparatus so ancient and lumbering, so redundant in our age of miniaturized technology as to be an offence to the contemporary soul."
Lovingly, he goes on at length about the relic: "Like a rusting engine of war on a forgotten battlefield, the ancient tape recorder lies where she has lain for decades, waiting for the call that will never come: except that today it has."
It'd be giving away too much to reveal who uses the recorder, and why. But it's safe to say that le Carre is having great fun here, with a wink and a nod to the tactics and tools favored by some of his most famous characters. George Smiley _ the "Tinker Tailor" hero who was portrayed by both Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman _ would be pleased to learn that the old-school ways haven't been entirely forgotten.
While others who write about spies and associated skullduggery are more interested in the technical specs of guns, missiles and other instruments of death, le Carre's heroes still prefer the subtlety of the hidden microphone. Their reasoning is sound: If you catch somebody spilling their guts, you won't have to spill their blood.