The commodification of public services, the manipulation of power for personal gain, extraordinary rendition, and old-fashioned moral bankruptcy are at the heart of John le Carré's 23rd novel. And privatisation has been splashed back on to the front pages of newspapers, for obvious reasons, over the past month, lending this story by the spy genre's chief architect a timeliness that it otherwise might not have enjoyed.
Gone are the days when George Smiley and his cohorts were tipped off by Oxbridge dons as to an undergraduate's suitably cutting the jib for life under the aegis of the Circus, Le Carré's euphemism for M16's top table. The hero of A Delicate Truth is Toby Bell, the "state educated only child of pious artisan parents ... who knew no politics but Labour". His boss is Fergus Quinn, a "marooned Blairite of the Gordon Brown era"; a dour and aggressive Scottish minister of Brown's son-of-the-manse mould. They are joined by two rather more anachronistic characters from the Foreign Office: Giles Oakley is Bell's sleazy, gentlemanly mentor who conveniently pops up occasionally to dispense advice; Sir Christopher Probyn is a purposefully overwritten ambassadorial stooge straight from an Evelyn Waugh novel.
As was the case with Smiley, his reticent alternative to Ian Fleming's trigger-happy James Bond, Le Carré is still not concerned with frontline secret agents. The Cold War has given way to privatised defence. Capitalism, once the ally, is now the enemy, and civil servants shift danger around, bean-counting human life. "They are blue-chip British career diplomats who have found themselves, like many others, at the trading tables of the free world's vast intelligence marketplace." The author's bugbears get a beating: Blair; Iraq; US and UK complicity in dodgy spy tip-offs; opaque Government procurement processes. Given the news cycle's obsession with austerity, such scandals have fallen out of the public eye, and are most welcome here.
At close to 350 pages, A Delicate Truth is a fairly brisk read. We begin with a civil servant sent on a mission to Gibraltar at Quinn's behest, ostensibly to be the minister's "man on the ground" while British and US intelligence services intercept an arms deal. The operation ends in secrecy, and the bureaucrat is put out to pasture. Fast-forward to Bell being posted in an advisory capacity to Quinn's office. He suspects Quinn has his hand in the till, and his conscience motors the narrative to its violent conclusion.
Unlike in the author's earlier work, in which characters were the kinds of "bloke who can hold two fundamentally opposing views and still function", as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's Roy Bland paraphrased F Scott Fitzgerald, there is scarcely the leg room to develop any deeper sense of creeping ambiguity. Bell, as our hero, is the best developed mind; Quinn and Probyn are almost completely black and white.
In terms of realism, fictional depictions of the Government feel as though they're in a different place, these days, thanks to television's efforts. While it tackles relatively modern themes, this book's soul resides in the dark corners of the Berlin Wall's long shadow. If you're after a decent spy novel, with a small dose of action, that's certainly no bad thing.