Few writers know a given territory as well as John le Carré knows the world of covert missions, encrypted phones and distrustful professional unions. It’s as if he sleeps with this stuff, brushes his teeth with it, never has a quiet moment apart from it. There is staked turf, and there is what le Carré prowls here. He can flat-out plot, too.
We begin his new novel, “A Delicate Truth,” in Gibraltar, where a man named (initially) Paul — a standard-issue employee of the British government — has been pressed into service as an operative on an anti-terrorism mission. The action — the bang-bang of guns — in this portion of the story occurs off-screen. Apparently, it’s a success: Paul returns to his normal life, is given a title and appears primed to live out the rest of his days in ease.
But as so often happens in life and in books, the past comes calling, thanks to a rising government all-star named Toby Bell, who makes a discovery — through illegal means — of what really went down and now finds himself confronting an ethical dilemma: do the right thing and oust the truth from its shadows, which would mean losing his career and possibly his life, or keep quiet. All roads lead to Paul and Jeb Owens, another member of the anti-terrorism mission and the only one who knows the full truth. Jeb is both a corporeal, flesh-and-blood force in the narrative and its guiding spirit.
There are shifts in tense and syntax, and the text moves from first person to second and sometimes to third. The shifts don’t grate; they seem natural, given that this is the story of a truth hidden in the past that becomes clear in the present and forces its consequences on the future. As a literary collagist, le Carré is fiercely modern; this is the thriller as tapestry, a confluence of styles, voices, approaches. At one point, the third-person narrator, who has a knack for shifting into the heads of Paul and Toby, and sometimes both simultaneously, has Paul ask himself, “Was he in present or past time?” We wonder the same thing before reaching the inevitable answer: both.
What makes “A Delicate Truth” work is that the story powers the writerly flourishes and, after a while, vice versa. This is popcorn reading — you can shovel buckets of it into your mouth as you turn the pages. At the same time, the narrative and temporal shifts enhance your sense of the complex choices that men like Paul, Jeb and especially Toby — he is our real hero in a three-man race — have to make, which in turn suggest choices we make as readers. In the case of “A Delicate Truth,” the rewarding choice is to follow le Carré down the labyrinthine corridors of a novel that beckons us beyond any and all expectations.
Fleming writes for the Atlantic, Rolling Stone and other publications.