Book Review: A Delicate Truth (2013) by John Le Carrė

JLC needs no introduction. He is a former British SIS officer, real name David Cornwell. Although he served in the 1960s he is still very much in touch with the espionage world. He is regularly invited to give lectures to young SIS officers at the start of their careers. He also has many friends and contacts in intelligence services across the globe. He knows what he is talking about.

A Delicate Truth is no exception to Cornwell’s exceptional record. What makes the book interesting to someone who knows the secret world is the fact that he tackles issues that have only recently become of concern. This is no spy novel trapped in the cosy certainties of the Cold War that Cornwell knew so well. It is a considerable tribute to his abilities that at nearly eighty years of age he still has his stethoscope firmly on the pulse of the espionage world.

A Delicate Truth is primarily concerned with the way that private intelligence companies have invaded the espionage world. The venomously named “Ethical Outcomes” is a private company that promises the undivided attentions of “ a team of uniquely qualified geopolitical thinkers”. Cornwell’s hero, the dusty civil servant Sir Christopher Probyn, becomes involved in a secret operation that goes dreadfully wrong. When he tries to do the right thing he finds that the state and private industry hide behind the Official Secrets Act and combine forces to stop the truth coming out. It is a race against time to see if Probyn can outwit them. His unknown ally from the secret world is the idealistic Toby Bell, a young officer who also knows the truth behind “Ethical Outcomes”.  As the chase races towards a climax, surely one of them must succeed?

Not only is this a rollicking good read, but Cornwell clearly understands how politics and high finance have become so entwined that there is very little chance of a moral outcome in the secret world. It is Cornwell’s handling of the truth behind the story that makes this such a powerful read. As Sir Christopher Probyn sadly reflects: “War’s gone corporate.” If you want to get a taste of what the modern world of espionage is really like, this is where you should start.

[NB Spying Today book reviews are not assessments of the literary value of the work. They are written by intelligence professionals and are concerned with the book’s accuracy, relevance to the realities of espionage, place in espionage history, etc.]

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