Sunday, July 27, 2014

John Le Carre's A Delicate Truth

John Le Carre is a writer who nearly always gets great reviews for what, in the end, are often pretty mediocre books. A Delicate Truth however isn't a bad book and at 83 years old I marvelled at Le Carre's economic and skillful plotting and his nimble use of metaphor and simile (at least in the first 50 pages or so). The John Le Carre of today is a less patient writer than the master who brought us Tinker Tailor 40 years ago, but his impatient breathless prose is more in tune with our tech savvy distracted age than the languid wordsmithery of the Smiley books. I bought A Delicate Truth at Dubai airport and had read it by the time we landed in Melbourne, which is a tribute to Le Carre's power to hold the reader's attention and make those pages turn.  
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A Delicate Truth is about an "extraordinary rendition" attempt gone wrong in the British Crown Colony of Gibraltar which leads to the death of an African asylum seeker and her child. For the Americans who botch the operation it's just one of those things that happen, but for the Brits involved it's a moral disaster that poisons all of their lives. It's an effective story device and I liked the temporal and POV shifts and the ruthless analysis of what guilt does to a certain class of man. 
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Where A Delicate Truth falls down is in its didacticism and dialogue. Le Carre hates Tony Blair, New Labour, Americans (especially Republican Americans) and loves stiff upper lip One Nation Tories of the old school. A writer is allowed to like and hate whomever he wants but when his hatreds infect the text and he starts banging on his drum it can become wearisome. As for dialogue, well I know its heresy to suggest it, but I think Le Carre has always had a tin ear for dialogue. His experience has been limited by his background. He has largely sequestered himself in a farm in Cornwall for the last 50 years and his formative years were spent at boarding school, Oxford, Eton (where he taught classics) and then MI5. His Englishmen often talk like characters from PG Wodehouse's golden era or occasionally like characters cribbed from an episode or two of Eastenders; his Americans have a tendency to be unsophisticated Bible thumping simpletons and in one hugely embarrassing chapter in A Delicate Truth he has an Ulster-born RUC policewoman (a Protestant who is called Brigid no less!) who talks like a cross between Jamie Oliver & Lily Allen.
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Still A Delicate Truth is a fine airport novel that will keep you entertained on a long haul flight. If you've read Le Carre's last 3 books you'll know exactly what happens at the end but if you haven't I won't spoil it for you now. 

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

I gave up on Le Carre about five books ago for all the reasons you cite. However, my hardback Smiley books are prized possessions. Don't think I'll buy this one either.

BTW, I'm doing a marathon re-read of the Forsythe and Duffy trilogies after being disappointed in King's and JL Burke's latest. You and Stuart Neville are my go to authors.

Ray Collins said...

Thanks for the heads up on A Delicate Truth. I really like to read authors chronologically and by series because I find their ups and downs interesting. I gave up on le Carre after reading The Constant Gardener for the reasons you mention in your review. I'll give him another read now.

Alan said...

Adrian,Interesting post in light of a new biography of Kim Philby just published. and Le Carre's review of Philip Seymour Hoffman in "A Most Wanted Man."I also found for the reasons you cited especially dialogue conceived to further the author's political agenda to be rather insipid and two dimensional.The Smiley series however furnished me with some of the most extraordinary nuanced characters,dialogue and thought processes I have ever come across.I can actually see Alec Guinness and his ennui and weltschmerz stricken face loom up as I type. Might with your recommendation give this a try.Best Alan

seana graham said...

Hey, what's with the Eastenders bashing?

I haven't read Smiley, but I did read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and I have read a very early one which is more of a boarding school murder mystery and really enjoyed it.

I like his politics when he agrees with me, ie, the Iraq war or wars, but I still can't really forgive him for hitting Salman Rushdie when he was down, even though Sir Rushdie apparently has.

I am increasingly convinced that great fame is poisonous for writers, so it's probably just as well that some of our favorites haven't achieved it yet.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Read it, enjoyed it, forgot it.


I find I can remember some of the characters and situations in LeCarre's books but not the plots.

For some reason I assumed that the dialogue was just the way people speak in that world.

I like Charles Cumming too, another posh boy, but I liked the Alec Milius novels better than his more recent Thomas Kell series. I guess the Milius ones didn't sell that well.

Brendan O'Leary said...

I looked up the plot on Wikipedia, and was reminded of the fictional mercenary firm Ethical Outcomes. The name must have been inspired by Executive Outcomes, whom I encountered in Angola in 96/97.They were doing security for some oil companies there; I was just in town briefly prior to going offshore.

They were mostly South African but some were definitely Irish, Southern by their accents.

The war was still on then and there were a lot of heavily-armed men going about in the back of pickup trucks etc.

When I was taken to the heliport, they said, "Don't worry, your driver's got a gun"

That was worrying.

In a novel, or in the news for that matter, these kinds of things always seemed to be described in a heightened way. Some organisations have to be described as "shadowy" no matter how open and transparent they are.

adrian mckinty said...

Anon

You'll be definitely be talking in an Irish accent after me and Neville are in your head for a week or two!

My Tinker Tailor is a prized possession too, an original pressing, read twice...

adrian mckinty said...

Ray

This one is better than Gardener although thematically similar and with an oddly symmetrical plot.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Yes, that's why the film version of Tinker Tailor didnt work for me. The characters werent deep or interesting enough the way they are in the books or in the BBC series. Tinker Tailor is a fat juicy book that needs to be savoured.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

No, not bashing Eastenders, merely looking for a useful place where Le Carre might have cribbed some working class dialogue. He certainly doesnt seem to mix with the "lower orders" so he must have got his dialogue somewhere...Its very unconvincing I'm afraid but not as bad as that female RUC cop.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

I've wanted to do something about Angola for years particularly the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale where you have Cubans battling the South African army in the middle of the Angolan jungle...how bizarre is that?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cuito_Cuanavale

Le Carre's American characters are like children in his last few novels - big dangerous Bible mad children with guns, whereas the Brits are like Harold Macmillan trying to be Greece to America's Rome, but finding the Roman in charge to be Nero or Caligula... Its not terribly sophisticated but I imagine it appeals to the prejudices of Britain's left leaning N London living cultural elite, esp those who have never actually been to America.

seana graham said...

It seems to be an image that a lot of Americans like to promulgate themselves.

I was reminded of the other way the Brits like to see the Americans, which is as sinister types like Graham Greene's The Quiet American.

I somehow don't think the British seem as incomprehensible to us as we seem to be to them. Which doesn't mean of course that we actually understand them.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

The Quiet American is the proto model for Le Carre: naive, blundering, powerful and certainly no intellectual match for the world weary, wise, laconic Brit.

seana graham said...

But quiet, which isn't the way Americans are typically portrayed.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

No but its such an unsophisticated trope and unuanced trope. If he were not John Le Carre more reviewers wd give him a hard time about it I reckon...

speedskater42k said...

I loved Tinker and The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, but hated A Most Wanted Man.

Off topic: I just finished Robin Black's Life Drawing. It's excellent and recommended highly.

adrian mckinty said...

Speedskater

I didnt enjoy the book that much either but I am looking forward to the Philip Seymour Hoffman film in what I think was his last leading role...

Dana King said...

fter some initial alarm, I see my recently decided upon exploration of leCarre will still be worthwhile. I read THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD a few months ago and loved it, decided to work my way through the Cold War novels, starting with the Smiley books. Looks like I chose wisely.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Way off topic, but I thought I'd mention some crime fiction events in New York in September that ought to get you salivating: A U.S. launch for the company that is bringing out Ted Lewis' books here and then, 10 days later, James Ellroy reading from Perfidia. I plan to provide full reports when the time comes.

Anonymous said...

Dana King -- Smiley's People is a masterpiece. The Constant Gardener is crap. :-)

adrian mckinty said...

Dana

Tinker Tailor is a without doubt a masterpiece of the form, when Le Carre was firing on all cylinders, the Hong Kong one isnt so hot but again with Smiley's People it all comes together.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Glad to see you're covering Ellroy. Notoriously shy and always uncontroversial he cd do with the publicity.

Peter Rozovsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

Don't know if I'll cover him but I'll certainly read him. Interesting to see the publicity machine swing into action behind the impending release of the new book. All kinds of interviews with him are floating around on social media calculated to foment discussion among crime fiction readers. In one, for example, he said that parts of "Mad Man" and "Deadwood" were wonderful until the shows spun off into incoherence, and that "The Wire" was not just crap, but had crap writing. The man knows how to attract attention.

Peter Rozovsky said...

And hey, I'm sure Le Carre appreciated your leg-up on his long climb out of obscurity and neglect.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I have a feeling that Le Carre is well shielded from any -ve criticism, and his editor must be too.

I like Ellroy's books but I weary of the Ellroy machine. His constant need to bludgeon the reading public into submission. As an artist I think he peaked with The Cold 6000, but I guess we'll see.

He is right about The Wire though. I never clickd with that show & Simon and a bunch of rich white successful crime fiction writers did not succeed in convincing me that they cd write a remotely authentic African American demotic...