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John Le Carré

A Delicate Truth

[a digested version of the novel]

In a characterless hotel in Gibraltar, a pleasant if not remarkable man in his late 50s is in his room. What was his assumed name, he asked himself. Anderson. Paul Anderson. That was it! He is as jumpy as the tenses. However had he got himself into the situation."We've got a situation," said Fergus Quinn. Junior foreign minister. Dynamic and bulky. Cell phone pressed to an ear. Close-cropped ginger hair, greedy eyes and a pout of privileged discontent. Paul knows from the outset that any man who gets three damning sentences of description is a baddy, but as a civil servant he has a duty. "I want you to supervise a mission. You'll be working with private contractors, Ethical Outcomes."

Paul senses the irony is being rather trowelled on, but it's now too late. Elliott, a South African, you can never trust a South African, calls him to say the operation is on. "We'll be picking up Punter when he meets Aladdin. You wait at the top of the Rock with the Brit special forces. The Americans will go in when you give the all-clear."

Jeb, the leader of the British squad, is as unhappy as Paul. "We're basically just mercenaries," he says. Paul said there was no sighting of Punter but Elliott sent the Americans in anyway. "All clear," says Elliott. "Another jihadi in the bag."

In Whitehall, Toby Bell, newly appointed private secretary to Fergus Quinn, is feeling jumpy. He too has read the three-sentence description of his new boss and can tell he is a baddy. He called his old mentor, Giles Oakley, for assistance and was alarmed to find he also was given a contemptuous three-sentence description.

Toby is disappointed. He has been told by George Smiley that one of the most enjoyable qualities of starring in a Le Carré novel is that nothing is ever black and white, but now it seems his anger at New Labour and the privatisation of the intelligence services has got the better of him. "Ah well!" he thinks. At least he knows where he stands. It does still seem curious to Toby that Quinn should have got away with similar practices while at Defence - not even Peter Mandelson could have hoped for a reprieve after getting caught out like that - and it also feels unbelievable that Quinn should now be having private meetings without the knowledge of his staff. He breaks the habit of a lifetime and secretly records the meetings between Quinn, "Paul" and another man with three dripping-with-hatred sentences from Ethical Outcomes.

"Oooh ahh, oooh ahh." Three years have passed and to show we are in Cornwall, the locals are talking in dialect. Sir Christopher Probyn is enjoying his retirement from the civil service, though he did sometimes wonder if his last unmerited posting to the Caribbean, and the knighthood that came with it, might have had something to do with Gibraltar and his secondment as "Paul". A decrepit man appears at the Bumpkins Annual Fayre. Christopher looked at Jeb in amazement.

"The Gibraltar operation," Jeb spits. "It was a cover-up. The intelligence was wrong. There was no jihadi. The Americans killed a Muslim woman and her child."

"Good God!" Christopher replies, his conscience and his knighthood gnawing away at him. "We must do something. But what?"

Toby always knew he'd be dragged in again. His suspicions had been proved right when Quinn had been moved sideways again and Giles had underlined his corruption by taking a job in a merchant bank. It was just that he rather missed the old cold war days where nothing was ever quite as it seemed, where every sentence had a double, if not treble, negative, and espionage was coated in layers of repressed homoeroticism. Now he was just in a straightforward thriller. Anyone could now see that Jeb's life was in danger and that Christopher was too dim to sort things out. It was down to him. He retrieves the memory stick from its hiding place. If he plays his hand right, there is still time to see this one out to a suitably downbeat and inconclusive ending.

John Crace

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