John le Carré‘s 23rd novel, A Delicate Truth, is a tiring piece of work. Not that it’s not a perfectly good read, because it hums along at a swifter clip than some of the master’s classic older works. But it has a sense of moral outrage embedded in the scandal-espionage plotline, about a rogue mercenary operation that goes south, that feels just plain worn out by the modern world’s venality.
My review was published at PopMatters, here’s a bit of it:
Le Carré has long operated as a shadow Ian Fleming. For all the lone-man heroics of the Bond stories, with their (of late) painted-on world weariness, le Carré‘s men and women operated in murkier territories. They root about in cavernous bureaucracies where the deadly game of spying, information-trading, and executive actions are handled by committee meetings no more dramatic than a gathering of insurance sales executives. The only glamour came from the occasional grim satisfaction of a task well handled. In A Delicate Truth, there’s even less for the characters to hang on to, or readers. The world has gone foggy…
A Delicate Truth is currently on sale just about everywhere. Here’s an excerpt.
Partly as a companion to a new piece they have on some secret Cold War-era drug experimentation, and partly just because stories about spies never grow old, the New Yorker put up for free a John Le Carre piece from 2008 titled “The Madness of Spies.” It’s a nice toss of cold water (as Le Carre can do so well) on our more fervid imaginings about what secret agents get up to.
Le Carre describes going on his first-ever undercover mission in 1952, driving with a senior spy (the “Air Intelligence Officer”) to Austra’s border with Czechoslovakia, where a Czech air force officer should be waiting with secret information. He packs a gun, on orders from the A.I.O., who says, “Think of it as part of you.”
They stop at a bar to play pool:
The gun was indeed part of me: so much so that I had ceased to notice its presence on my hip. Stooping to address the ball, I was startled by the clang of a heavy metal object striking the tiled floor, and looked around to identify the source. Finally, I saw the Browning lying at my feet, but by then the inn had emptied itself of customers and landlord. I retrieved it, returned it to my waistband, and picked up the briefcase.
“Abort,” the A.I.O. ordered, pausing only to finish his beer.
This would never happen to Jason Bourne.