Spy novels are about adventure, tension and plot. Think Robert Ludlum and the various Bourne books.
Since the 1963 publication of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, they’ve also tended to be rather bleak.
Over the past half century, the books by Le Carre and his many imitators have featured characters who find themselves knee-deep in moral ambiguity (no white hats, no black hats; a fog of gray) and often end up being ground to bits in the inanimate gears of forces, philosophies and political imperatives beyond their ken. Certainly, beyond their control.
Le Carre remains among the best at unsettling the reader with the discomfiting realities of power and deceit in today’s world — or, maybe simply, in the world as it’s always been.
Modern and universal
His latest novel, A Delicate Truth, is about the cover-up of a complex operation that involved mercenaries, off-the-books British soldiers and a Foreign Office veteran who — let’s face it — was something of a likeable doofus. Over-planned, over-technologied, over-muscled, the effort went very wrong.
And, then, three years later, one of the participants comes looking for justice.
It’s a very modern story and, yet, a universal story. Men and women have been scheming for power from the beginning of human history. They’ve kept secrets, especially about their mistakes. And there’s always been collateral damage.
Lord help you if you get in the way of these people.
Still, the sum of Le Carre is more than his plots and his delineating of ethical quandaries. At their heart, his novels work best because of his eye for humanity — which is another way of saying his literary skill.
For instance, you’re unlikely to find sentences like this in the work of Ludlum or virtually any other espionage writer:
As far as Toby was concerned, Jay Crispin was your normal, rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke [i.e., custom-made] suit, with an unappeasable craving for money, power and respect, regardless of where he got them from….He had met embryonic Crispins in every walk of life and every country where he had served: just never until now one who had made his mark as a trader in small wars.
Let’s look at those two sentences a little more closely.
You’ve probably known a Jay Crispin. I ran into many of them in my years as a newspaper reporter.
Le Carre is describing the kind of person who can be found along the edges of every organization, a schemer, someone who thinks in terms of leverage and access. Le Carre’s list of adjectives — “rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken” — are wonderfully precise in capturing aspects of the Jay Crispins of the world.
“A frozen adolescent”
But it’s his description of the character as a “frozen adolescent” that is absolutely brilliant. Maybe another writer could have come up with Le Carre’s list of adjectives, but it takes the eye of a poet to recognize these cravers, always seeking an unearned advantage, as the immature personalities they are.
And, then, at the end, there’s the twist.
Crispin is involved in a company named Ethical Outcomes (which in the usual way of euphemisms isn’t very ethical nor are its outcomes all that great). He offers soldiers for rent and secrets for sale to the highest bidder.
There are lots of fancy names for what he does. But Le Carre’s character Toby calls a spade a spade. Crispin makes his money as “a trader in small wars.” (Talk about moral ambiguity.)
The doofus in A Delicate Truth is Christopher “Kit” Probyn. Although a career diplomat, Kit has a good bit of bull-in-a-china-shop to his make-up.
For instance, Kit’s daughter Emily is telling Toby, another Foreign Office hand who has become an ally to the family, that her father has gone off with clear intent to do something but without telling anyone what. So Toby asks:
“Has he done this kind of thing before?
“Refused to speak to us.”
“Thrown a tantrum — gone AWOL — taken matters into his own hands — whatever.”
“When my beloved ex-partner waltzed off with a new girlfriend and half my mortgage, Dad went and laid siege to their flat.”
“Then what did he do?”
“It was the wrong flat.”
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all known a Kit Probyn at some point in our lives. And, if we’re really honest, we’ve been a Kit at times ourselves.
We’ve also known the MacIntyres.
They make a brief but unforgettable appearance midway through A Delicate Truth.
Kit and his wife Suzanna (“Suki”) have moved in their retirement into the manor house of the North Cornish village of St. Pirran and have captivated the townsfolk. (Kit is, after all, a career diplomat and also, a good fellow. I mean that: A good fellow.) So he’s elected Official Opener and Lord of Misrule for the annual village fair.
On the day, Kit and Suzanna are making their royal tour of the fair. From inside Kit’s head, we watch as they inspect the horses on show, as well as the home-grown vegetables and home-made breads and cheeses. Then:
Sample piccalilli: tasteless but keep grinning. Smoked salmon pate excellent. Urge Suki to buy some. She does. Linger over Gardening Club’s floral celebration. Suzanna knows every flower by its first name. Bump into MacIntyres, two of life’s dissatisfied customers. Ex-tea-planter George keeps a loaded rifle at the bedside for the day the masses assemble at his gates. His wife, Lydia, bores for the village. Advance on them with out-stretched arms.
“George! Lydia! Darlings! Marvelous! Super dinner at your house the other night, really one of those evenings. Our turn next time!”
Move gracefully to our bygone threshing machines and steam engines….
When I read those few sentences, I was filled with admiration for Kit — again, a career diplomat — for his way of describing what must have been a dreadful dinner: “really one of those evenings.”
Even more, though, I was delighted with the way Kit (and Le Carre) described the MacIntyres as “two of life’s dissatisfied customers.”
I only wish I were able to be as open-armed and deft as Kit in dealing with the MacIntyres in my own life.
Just four characters
Jay Crispin, Kit Probyn and the MacIntyres — just four of Le Carre’s characters in A Delicate Truth.
Yet, are there any people as alive as these three in any Ludlum book or any other spy book for that matter?
That’s why Le Carre remains on top.
He’s not writing spy novels. He’s writing novels.
Patrick T. Reardon