There’s a key moment when the oleaginous Foreign Office chameleon, Giles Oakley, goads his protegé and A Delicate Truth‘s protagonist, Toby Bell, about what he should do with his qualms about government policy in the run up to Iraq War.

You’re exactly what the Guardian needs: another lost voice bleating in the wilderness. If you don’t agree with government policy, don’t hang around trying to change it. Jump ship. Write the great novel you’re always dreaming about. (p51)

Oakley’s alternative is to keep his seat at the table in order to voice those concerns. But as he knows all too well, the price of staying at the table is invariably acquiescence (a hallmark of Oakley’s career of which Bell is well aware).

Le Carré delicate truth

There’s dramatic irony here, of course, for this precisely describes what David Cornwell (aka John Le Carré) did once his ground-breaking The Spy Who Came In From The Cold hit the big time all those years ago. The novels have cascaded from his pen since. But with A Delicate Truth, he describes someone who stays in and risks everything to expose the venal and the reprehensible at the highest levels. Guilt-ridden for his silence before Iraq (p242), he is driven to blow whistles when he discovers a tragic crime, albeit on a far smaller scale.

Fury Trumps Ambiguity

Le Carré’s genius in his Cold War novels was convincingly to blur the era’s hard dichotomies, such that it’s dominant colour was persistently grey not black and white. This gave the books their gripping mystique and profound sense of unease. However, it’s fair to say that since Berlin Wall fell, and his unremittingly piercing gaze has turned to the woes of capitalist west, there is less ambiguity. It’s invariably clear whom he considers to be on the wrong side of an argument. This is perhaps why so many commentators pick up on the righteous fury that seems to compel him to keep writing.  It was always there in his writing, but it now seems to sit front and centre. The point is that the corruption depicted here is terrible and needs to be exposed.

The FCO main staircase
The FCO main staircase

The dramatic tension derives from the whistleblower’s perennial struggle: how to speak truth about power successfully when speaking truth to power has failed. The odds are stacked against the little man. What is particularly frightening, if the evident research alluded to in the book’s acknowledgements is to be believed, is how much the UK legal system is stacked against government whistleblowers. There is a chilling scene when Sir Kit Probyn, an honourable but ineffectual diplomat, tries to do the right thing and is confronted by a wall of FCO legalese:

Which would mean, I’m afraid, that any inquiry would have to take place behind closed doors. Should it find against you – and should you elect to bring a suit – which would naturally be your good right – then the resultant hearing would be conducted by a handpicked and very carefully briefed group of approved lawyers, some of whom would obviously do their best to speak for you and others not so for you. And you – the claiming, as he or she is rather whimsically called – would I’m afraid be banished from the court while the government presented its case to the judge without the inconvenience of a direct challenge by you or your representatives. And under the rules currently being discussed, the very fact that a hearing is being conducted might itself be kept secret. As of course, in that case, would the judgment.’

… On and the whistle-blowing per se would absolutely not be a defence, whistle-blowing being – and may it forever so in my personal view – by definition a risk business. I’m deliberately not pulling my punches here, Kit. I think Frances and I both feel we owe you that. Don’t we, Frances?’ (p267)

The New Mercenaries

The problem is that it is corporations and not governments that really pull the strings. Those who inhabit the murky world of global security and intelligence make it their business to snap up as many ex-spies, politicians, policemen and military veterans as they can, and they bestride the world as colossi. The many companies that carved up a Saddam-free Iraq are a case in point. These enterprises are backed by unaccountable tycoons with bottomless pockets and questionable agendas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given a European antipathy to such things, the key backer here is a billionaire widow with clear Christian right and neo-con convictions. One might groan a little at the caricature, but alas it is often far too accurate to avoid. However, giving the evil corporation the name Ethical Outcomes, is not exactly subtle in its cynicism, even though I suppose it is precisely the sort of name they might have.

Chirac_Bush_Blair_BerlusconiThe corporation’s man in London is Jay Crispin, a shadowy figure driven by his owninsecurities. He is something of a Jay Gatsby and Peter Mandelson hybrid, though that is probably defamatory to both:

As far as Toby was concerned, Jay Crispin was your normal, rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke suit, with an unappeasable craving for money, power and respect, regardless of where he got them from. (p295)

Gripping but Chillingly Plausible

Le Carré certainly hasn’t lost his flair for pen-portraits and finely-tuned dialogue, nor for plot complexity (although to be fair, if laid out chronologically, these events aren’t especially intricate). This book did not disappoint and is a return to form after the less critically acclaimed recent novels. It will undoubtedly please Guardian readers, of course, and it will seem too cynical for those who still (somehow) maintain a greater confidence in the establishment. However, the questions it raises, with chilling plausibility, are essential – for if it’s not possible to speak truth to power and constitutional checks and balances are ridden roughshod by supra-national corporations, then we will all suffer in the end.


Now that it’s out, here is the official trailer, which really does capture the fraught mood and spirit of the book. It also features the great man himself…

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Greg

    I think it’s his best book since The Constant Gardener. While his last couple have been little more than rants, this has some of the subtlety and moral complexity of old: while Crispin is obviously the bad guy, he does get his chance to speak, meanwhile the book is driven by the contrast between the three prospective good guys; Toby, Kit and Giles. Each has his hallmark way of dealing with the problems he faces, none is perfect and all have their own ulterior motives and personal problems. As you say, it’s a thought-provoking analysis of acquiescence vs confrontation, and the relationship between two people who try these different paths.

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