A Delicate Truth, John LeCarré (Viking Adult, 2013 {Penguin Audio, Narrator: John LeCarré)

 (John LeCarré, Mystery, Espionage, Thriller)

adelecatetruthaudiobookGrade: Γ– (Gamma) A good book within the genre, possibly worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that is likely to be unappealing to individuals who dislike a given genre.

In brief:

A Delicate Truth by John LeCarré marks a return to form for one of the great espionage and intrigue writers whose recent books have been a bit disappointing.  Published fifty years after his break through novel, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,[1] LeCarré’s twenty-third novel remains more heavy handed than his earlier works, but overcomes the sledge hammer moral messages of his most recent endeavors.  What is more, the story, the quest and the characters are all much more compelling than he has written since Single and Single (1999).  To that end, this is a great book for anyone looking for a solid tale of government duplicity set in the modern age.


Mostly modern (2008 -2013) day United Kingdom, with some scenes in Cairo and Gibraltar.

In Depth:

I will admit to having been disappointed by many of John LeCarré’s more recent novels.  It seems to me that after the end of the Cold War (and The Silent Pilgrim), he had somewhat lost his way.  Oh, he produced some fine books, including The Night Manager, The Tailor of Panama and the previously mentioned Single and Single, but unlike the subtle and scalpel fine commentary of his earlier works, even the best of them seemed to make his moral and political commentary with a blunt instrument.  In some instances he also seemed to be treading out of his depths, most particularly with books like The Constant Gardener and Mission Song,[2] where his views of reality seemed permanently tainted with the brush of the days of Empire.[3]

Fortunately, A Delicate Truth does not suffer from these weaknesses. Indeed, in it one is treated to an excellent tale that harkens back to LeCarré’s best writing.

His 23rd novel is the tale of two Foreign Service officers, one a young rising star, the other a man nearing retirement whose service record never truly shined.  Each becomes involved in an operation that is questionable both in legality and outcome.  To say more is to give spoilers, though in truth, it is not the mystery of the mission that is the enjoyment of this novel, the process of discovery taken by each of the characters.  Neither is a spy, and both make the kinds of mistakes that non-professionals would as they uncover the truth of Operation Wildfire.  It is highly enjoyable read, that, while by no means the best work in LeCarré’s career, is certainly his best work in the past ten years.

Le-Carre-Delicate-TruthInterestingly, this book, along with LeCarré in general, has been described as anti-American, but personally I don’t agree.[4] While there are some despicable Americans in the novel,[5] the real villains of this piece are British.  Indeed, this novel, like most of his recent works, comes across to me not so much as a book about the evils of America but the disillusionment of a man who sees a generation of the West squandering the hard fought victories of his own generation and those that preceded it.  A condemnation of men and women who are twisting ideas into ideologies and making moral some of the immoral acts needed to win in the past wars.

A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré. Illustration: Matt BleaseTo that end, this novel is not about an intelligence officer doing questionable acts for the greater good, but member of the Foreign Service who question their roles in acts that are quite possibly illegal.  It is a novel about whistle blowers and potential whistle blowers, and the dangerous and dubious paths they tread.  In these days of Edward Snowden, this seems a valuable lesson to consider, for where does one’s responsibility to the Government end and responsibility to the People begin?

I cannot say and would not like to make Snowdon or any other whistleblower a hero per se,[6] but somewhere there is a line between complicity and accountability that each individual must face.  This book is about that line, and it draws that line very, very well.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

Another fine Penguin Audio book, this time read by the author himself: John LeCarré.

Normally, I don’t like hearing authors read their own works because, normally, they don’t do it very well.  In this instance, however, the author’s fine, educated tones and his clear professional performance adds to the experience. Where he learned to speak so clearly and read so well is beyond me, but he certainly more than manages it in this novel.  A fine performance that adds to the enjoyment of a fine book.

[1] One of the best espionage novels ever written, see my review.

[2] Both of which I will eventually get around to reviewing.

[3] Indeed, in Mission Song in particular his representation of his naïve African protagonist made for occasionally uncomfortable reading.

[4] While the author has always been critical of the US, I have felt it has been more a critique of the Americanization of British culture and policies than it has been of Americans as a whole, or even as a nation. Indeed he does criticize America in a manner that is not focused on the Anglo-Americanization process, I tend to see them as criticism of the West as a whole, with America being the obvious symbol.

[5] Including one woman who bare resemblance to a cross between Sarah Palin and any number of the kind of rich, evangelist über-conservative women that are stereotyped in so many novels and movies today.

[6] Particularly one who starts playing into the foreign policy hands of other nations; blow the whistle and pay the price – you might become a hero you might end up in jail.  Likely both.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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