John le Carre’s “A Delicate Truth”

I just finished reading John le Carre’s latest book A Delicate Truth. What a treat! Le Carre is 81 years old, and he’s not only written his best book in years, but in the process has fanned the coals of hope for my own flickering writing career. I have always admired Mr. le Carre’s writing style. Even in his books that I haven’t particularly enjoyed, the sheer quality of his writing always kept me reading on – intelligent, literary, and as deliciously multi-layered as a Strasbourg ice cream cone, i.e., from the little ice cream parlor on the left side of the street in front of the cathedral in Strasbourg, France.

But truth be told, I haven’t especially enjoyed the plot lines of his latest books, namely, Absolute Friends, The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man, and Our Kind of Traitor. There were a variety of reasons: too depressing, too hopeless, too cynical, and in one of his books, Our Kind of Traitor, about the Russian Mafia, too much bad language, And sadly, at times even the writing seemed a little uneven – a little too obtuse. I had reached the conclusion that le Carre was past his prime, still more of a craftsman than all but a few of the current crop of thriller writers, but, dang it all, the man was getting old. And then comes along A Delicate Truth. Okay, le Carre does seem to have lately discovered one of our culture’s more popular swear words – which is annoying – but, I assume he feels this is how his characters would realistically speak – if so, I’d rather have the introspective, cultured, intellectual, well-read George Smiley back. But, oh well, these are the characters he chose to put in his book, and as the author he gets to decide what they say. I will add in his defense though: while the language jarred me in places, at least le Carre was writing an end-to-end realistic book. The authors that really irk me are the ones that have the bad language, thinking this makes the book realistic, while otherwise having the characters say and do the most unrealistic things in defiance of all the laws of man and nature. Le Carre is gritty, real, and authentic from first page to last. Even if you’ve never been set-up and warned-off by a member of the British foreign service, you can read the exchange between Kit and his two deceptively bland bureaucratic interrogators at the end of A Delicate Truth and know Yep, this is how it would be done.

Perhaps one reason the book was so good was that le Carre was back on firm ground again dealing with intrigue and machinations in the corridors of British power as the gears of government grind the innocent to dust. He even said in an interview that the two main characters, Trevor and Kit, were somewhat autobiographical. One interesting point I’ve noticed before is that le Carre despises how the Americans are conducting the war on terror. While I fully sympathize with his frustrations, and there is much to criticize, I wonder what he thinks the alternative is. What would the European heads of state have done? Most likely dithered. Or the Chinese? Think Tibet. Or the Russians? Think Checknya.

After I finished A Delicate Truth, I immediately downloaded le Carre’s The Constant Gardener about drug testing in Africa by global pharmaceuticals. But my wife warned me that it was very sad, so I’m putting off reading it for a while until I recharge emotionally. Instead I picked up a thriller by another very successful NYT best-selling writer. Wow! After reading le Carre it was like going back to ‘See Spot run. See Jane run with Spot.”

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