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Originally published Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 5:56 AM

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John le Carré’s ‘A Delicate Truth’: a dark mix of motive and opportunity

John le Carré’s new novel, “A Delicate Truth,” imagines a well-traveled and retired British diplomat called back into action to pierce the veil of a political/business/intelligence service conspiracy.

Bloomberg News

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‘A Delicate Truth’

by John le Carré

Viking, 311 pp., $28.95

In “A Delicate Truth,” John le Carré plunges us into Operation Wildlife, a secret anti-terrorist strike being staged in Gibraltar by an odd mix of British Special Forces and American mercenaries.

The British diplomat on the ground is a curious choice: aging, well-traveled Kit Probyn, surprised to have been summoned after a career in mundane economic roles.

Wildlife is a success, flawless, Probyn is told. Unless of course it isn’t. This being le Carré, nothing is ever simple.

Three years later, Probyn, now comfortably retired to the countryside, is drawn back to Wildlife by a chance encounter that probably wasn’t. All didn’t play out as it seemed, he’s told by a relic from the past. Innocents may have died.

Onstage steps “compulsively ambitious” civil servant Toby Bell. Blithe and earnest, he’s startled to learn that he didn’t know about the operation even though he served at the time as private secretary to a certain overbearing Minister Fergus Quinn, a “marooned Blairite of the new Gordon Brown era.”

Bell is drawn to Probyn’s amateur investigation, the heart of the book. More shady characters emerge: Quinn’s best friend, the nefarious defense contractor Jay Crispin, and Crispin’s moneyed American protectress Miss Maisie (“friend of the Tea Party, scourge of Islam, homosexuals, abortion and, I believe, contraception”).

Soon Bell will face career- and health-humbling choices and will have to figure out what to make of Probyn’s alluring daughter, Emily. Will Toby and Kit uncover the truth, bring the duplicitous to justice, throw wide the dusty curtains of avaricious corporate abomination?

It’s all an entertaining mix, and le Carré gives himself plenty of openings to sound off on the politically suspect and morally dangerous failings of Americans, as is his wont of late.

Yet this small book requires, at times, a stupefyingly large suspension of disbelief. Not only is a British minister in cahoots with a private military contractor, the exquisitely named Ethical Outcomes Inc., but that contractor has the heads of foreign-intelligence agencies in its pocket, too. Really?

Nor does it seem likely — although here perhaps I give too much credit to my journalistic brethren — that no reporter has thought to look into that minister, or a certain top-secret military operation conducted on British soil.

Le Carré is, as always, a lyrical writer. He tosses off character sketches with precision. Of an Englishman, he writes, “The demeanour — he cannot say quite why — unmistakably British, perhaps because the hand gestures, while brisk and economic, are in some way inhibited.”

And he leavens this dark tale with humor. After Emily’s partner dumped her for someone new, she tells Toby, “Dad went and laid siege to their flat.”

“Then what did he do?”

“It was the wrong flat.”

In the end, though, I was left wondering whether there could have been a bigger palette for le Carré, now 81, to display his considerable talents. I left “A Delicate Truth” informed by the banality of evil, intrigued by a story that flops, Mobius strip-like, into and onto itself and yes, eagerly turning pages to find out what happens next.

But it’s like Daniel Craig tooling down an Alpine byway at the wheel of a lime-green Prius. Something doesn’t quite fit.

Alec D.B. McCabe is an editor at Bloomberg News.

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