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A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

Hell hath no fury like a junior-to-mid-ranking civil servant scorned. Or, if not fury, at the very least perseverance and resourcefulness. John le Carré’s 23rd novel centres on the inner turmoil of Toby Bell, private secretary to a junior New Labour Foreign Office minister, a greedy, nasty piece of work with neo-con leanings – but publicly hailed as a man of the people.

Frustrated at being constantly left out of his boss’s hush-hush out-of-hours meetings, piqued at being lied to and, in one humiliating encounter, having apparently failed to ‘make his mark’ on a blacklisted private defence contractor, Bell records one of his minister’s conversations which never took place.

To his horror and, despite his clear contempt for him, initial disbelief, he hears said minister briefing two recruits – one diplomatic, one military – about their imminent covert operation in Gibraltar, a clandestine mission which turns out to be far from bloodless.

Beside depicting the inevitable downfall of the ‘corporate rot’ that had set in in the world of defence procurement by the late 1990s, A Delicate Truth addresses with great poignancy the dilemmas faced by anyone torn between professional ambition and moral rectitude, especially when the punishment meted out for knowing too much won’t stop with a posting to an inhospitable location or invoking a breach of the Official Secrets act.

In Toby Bell, le Carré presents an accidental man-on-a-mission, an equally naive and complex thirtysomething whose every ally, mentor or confidant is likely to stab him in the back. Le Carré’s prose is as precise as ever, not just in the plot construction but in the chilling, meticulous descriptions of the corrupt – in every sense of the word – minions, mandarins and their masters.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of his first best-seller, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the truth – no need to put it delicately – is that le Carré shows no sign of shedding any of the grace and mastery that make him arguably the greatest novelist alive.

Penguin / Viking, €24