Everett Collection

Patrick Stewart as the Soviet spymaster Karla and Alec Guinness as the British spy George Smiley in the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Smiley’s People, 1982

Interviewer: Where does this pessimism come from?

John le Carré: From my observations.

Les Nouvelles Littéraires, September 1965

In the official morality of states, treason and patriotism are poles apart, as starkly opposed as love and hate, right and wrong. David Cornwell, writing as John le Carré, has spent more than half a century blurring that sharp opposition, making it unstable and obscure. And now, at the age of eighty-one and in his twenty-third novel, he has finally brought the poles together. In A Delicate Truth, treason is not merely compatible with patriotism. In order to be a patriot, the novel suggests, it is necessary to betray the state.

A Delicate Truth is simpler than almost any other le Carré novel because he is no longer in the swamp of moral ambiguities. He has crossed all the way over to the far side and stands, perhaps for the first time, on firm ground. There is no longer a dark and difficult game to be played. The three central figures of the book are all genuinely, almost sentimentally, patriotically British. And for each of them, that sentiment creates an unambiguous imperative: he must betray the secrets of the British state. In much of le Carré’s previous work, treason arises from personal complexities and emotional entanglements. Here it is the inevitable consequence of true patriotism. His old traitors betray the state because they are, by nature, deceitful. These new ones betray it because they are, by nature, honest.

The three main characters of A Delicate Truth are true believers in their country. The diplomat Kit Probyn—a “low flyer,” not a brilliant operative; an extrovert, not a gray man; happily married, not cuckolded; emotional, not icily cold—differs from le Carré’s most famous creation, the spy George Smiley, in almost every respect. Except one: his patriotism. Smiley, from his introduction to the world in le Carré’s first novel Call for the Dead, published in 1961, is “a sentimental man” with a “deep love of England.” So is Probyn. He has, we learn in the second sentence of A Delicate Truth, “very British features.” A little later, he drives through Gibraltar, one of the last outposts of the old British Empire:

A wave of patriotic fervour swept over him as centuries of British imperial conquest received him. The statues to great admirals and generals, the cannons, redoubts, bastions, the bruised air-raid precaution signs directing our stoical defenders to their nearest shelter, the Gurkha-style warriors standing guard with fixed bayonets outside the Governor’s residence, the bobbies in their baggy British uniforms: he was heir to all of it.

Later, Probyn, in happy retirement as Sir Christopher, presides at a village festival in Cornwall and revels even in the kitschy quality of the whole affair. He is well aware that “it’s Merrie bloody England, it’s Laura bloody Ashley, it’s ale and pasties and yo-ho for Cornwall”; but, he asks rhetorically of himself and his wife, “if this isn’t the land they have loved and served for so long, where is?”

Equally, Toby Bell, the much younger sometime spy and now rising star of the Foreign Office, is motivated by a straightforward patriotism. We might expect him, as the upwardly mobile “gifted, state-educated only child of pious artisan parents from the south coast of England,” to be driven, as indeed his friends are, by the desire to climb into the ruling class and make money. But he is in fact a patriotic idealist who wishes to “make a difference” by playing a part in “his country’s discovery of its true identity in a post-imperial, post–Cold War world.” This patriotism differs from Probyn’s in being forward-looking rather than nostalgic, but it is all the more potent for that. As his mentor Giles Oakley puts it, Toby could become part of the “new elite…the real men of England, unspoiled.”

The third patriot in the story is Jeb Owens, a captain in the British special forces, who has served in all his country’s recent wars—Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan. He is the perfect soldier who never swears and hardly ever drinks. He is a natural leader of men—even Probyn, his social superior, defers to him without question. He prides himself on doing his duty. He tells his wife, “I fight for my country.”

The very structure of the novel contains, rather uneasily, a notion of what that country is. The unease lies in the confusion of Englishness with Britishness. Le Carré is an English, not a British, writer. It is Oxford colleges and Cornish cliffs, not Welsh coal-mining valleys or Scottish shipyards, that bring a tear to George Smiley’s eye. But in one of the minor oddities of A Delicate Truth, le Carré tries to evoke a larger British identity by including characters from each of the four “nations” that make up the United Kingdom. Probyn and Bell are English, Owens is Welsh; Owens’s wife is from Northern Ireland and one of the villains of the piece, the junior Foreign Office minister Fergus Quinn, is Scottish. This feels strained and schematic, but it draws attention to the importance for le Carré here of the notion of a homeland, a country that ought to be served by those who represent it.


Le Carré does not mock this patriotism, even the faintly ridiculous nostalgia for empire that gives Probyn hot flushes or causes his Foreign Office colleague Diana to speak “in the heroic anachronisms of the Punjabi officers’ mess.” For the point, in the world of A Delicate Truth, is precisely that all of this patriotism has become a heroic anachronism. The British state has itself become anti-patriotic, in that it stands in the way of the interests of its people. The emotion that made sense of all the murky double-dealings of the old le Carré spies and preserved a sense that they were still on “our side”—Smiley’s “deep love of England”—now compels Probyn, Bell, and Owens to become enemies of the state. It is almost, in this story, as if Britain has been occupied by an alien power and its patriots are compelled to revolt against its puppet government.

Probyn, Bell, and Owens are brought together by a single incident in Gibraltar in 2008. Probyn, chosen precisely because he is a “low flyer” coming toward the end of an undistinguished diplomatic career, is summoned by Quinn and sent to Gibraltar on a secret mission. He is to be the minister’s eyes and ears in an operation to capture a senior jihadist. Owens is the leader of a small British special forces unit taking part in the operation. But it is clear to readers almost from the beginning that the real driving force is an American-based private defense contractor called Ethical Outcomes. The mission is being run by “a rabble of American mercenaries, aided by British Special Forces in disguise and funded by the Republican evangelical right.”

The projected capture proceeds in darkness and confusion. Probyn is spirited out of Gibraltar, told that everything has gone as planned, and rewarded with a plum posting and a knighthood before he retires. Three years later, in 2011, Owens suddenly reappears in Probyn’s life, an angry ghost, telling ugly tales of a calamity in Gibraltar. Probyn and Bell, who was Quinn’s private secretary at the time of the operation but kept out of the loop, are forced to become spies. The twist is that they have to conduct their covert operation against their own government, to discover what really happened in Gibraltar and how it has been covered up.

In the classic Le Carré thriller, the aim of the loyal agents is to find out the enemy’s secrets and to prevent the enemy from discovering the secrets of the British state. But Probyn and especially Bell have to discover and expose a secret guarded by the institutions of the British state itself: the truth about the Gibraltar debacle. The enemy is not just the American contractors Ethical Outcomes. It is also Probyn and Bell’s employer, the Foreign Office, which is engaged in a cover-up. Even more disturbingly, it becomes clear that the ordinary forces of national security, the army and the police, are willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure that Owens’s tale is not told. Bell ends up operating in his own beloved country like an agent behind enemy lines, making secret recordings, using untraceable cell phones, adopting false identities. He becomes in effect a double agent, with the difference that the two opposed blocs in question are not the state and its enemies but the state and the truth. Bell must secretly serve the latter by penetrating the secrets of the former.

What’s new here is not the idea that covert operations suck the state into moral swamps. In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the book that made David Cornwell rich and his alter ego John le Carré famous all of fifty years ago, the spymaster, Control, explains to the protagonist Alec Leamas “the ethic of our work”:

We do disagreeable things, but we are defensive…. We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. Is that too romantic? Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things.

These wicked acts, he reflects, will look almost exactly like the wicked acts of the enemy, in this case the spies of the Soviet bloc:


Our methods—ours and those of the opposition—have become much the same. I mean you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?… That would never do.

Control’s cynical ruminations capture, of course, the contradictions of covert warfare, not just in the cold war but in the so-called war on terror that provides the context for A Delicate Truth. In a recent essay in The New Yorker, le Carré calls The Spy Who Came In from the Cold “a very British story about very British secret manners,” but in this respect at least it applies to all those who conduct covert wars. Le Carré established in popular culture the idea that, when it comes to “secret manners,” there is little outward distinction between the actions of each side’s spies. They all trade in ruthlessly “disagreeable things”: murder, betrayal, contempt for the ordinary law. What distinguishes the sides, therefore, is merely the ultimate intention. Their guys do wicked things to further the schemes of malign states; our guys do equally wicked things in defense of relatively benevolent governments.

This idea was resurrected in more recent times. In the War on Terror, it is necessary to be just as ruthless as the terrorist opposition, just as willing to go beyond the bounds of law and morality. Here too these disagreeable things—torture, kidnapping, assassinations, acts of terror that mirror those of the enemy—must be done “so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night.” If the rest of us are to enjoy nocturnal serenity, somebody else must be out there, wide awake in a different kind of darkness, doing secret evils in obscurity.

Half a century ago, le Carré did more than anyone else to infiltrate this ambiguous morality of state terror into popular consciousness. At one level, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold could be read as an assault on the garish glamour and casual sadism of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Leamas is, in the end, a heroic dupe, gallant but ignorant, used and betrayed by his own masters. The worst treachery comes, not from the enemy, but from his own side. And Leamas is not a stud in an Aston Martin. He is a tired and rather banal man. His successor in le Carré’s fiction, Smiley, is neither banal nor a dupe, but he is even more obviously the anti-Bond.

Yet Leamas and Smiley are not entirely unromantic figures. They may live in and be shaped by a world of moral treachery, where heroism can never be untarnished, but they still represent an ethic that le Carré upholds against the enemy of Communist conformism. They are individualists. It may seem odd to say this about Smiley, so perfectly represented in television adaptations by Alec Guinness as a man who is barely present at all. Yet in his own way, Smiley is as exaggeratedly individual a creation as Bond. If Bond is impossibly glamorous, Smiley is impossibly unglamorous. He is extravagantly unprepossessing.

When we first meet him, on the opening page of Call for the Dead, he is not just “short, fat and of a quiet disposition,” but is said to “spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” His physical ugliness is deliberately enhanced by his ill-fitting clothes in the same way that Bond’s beauty is set off by his perfectly tailored suits. Smiley’s very grayness is so extreme that it becomes a kind of vivid individuality. And that individuality is also a value. However murky the morality of the cold war may be, le Carré’s liberal humanism always tips the moral balance toward the West because it creates more space for individualism. Smiley, by pushing bureaucratic grayness to such an extreme, turns it into an expression of the individualism that le Carré upholds.

In one respect, A Delicate Truth is typical of this earlier le Carré work in that it sets the individual against institutions. The patriotic young diplomat Toby Bell is introduced to us as “the most feared creature of our contemporary world: a solitary decider.” This is le Carré’s great theme. From the beginning, his novels were saturated in institutional corruption—that of the secret service in Call for the Dead; that of an elite school in his second novel, A Murder of Quality. Already, in the opening chapter of Call for the Dead, we find Smiley nostalgic for the pre–cold war secret service, and rueful about the way

the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

This distrust of institutions is rooted in experience. It is a contempt based on overfamiliarity. David Cornwell’s own upbringing was largely institutional: his mother left the family when he was very young and his father was in and out of prison owing to the spectacular career as a fraudster so fruitfully mined in his most autobiographical (and arguably best) novel, A Perfect Spy. Instead of a family, Cornwell moved through a series of institutions: boarding school, British army intelligence, Oxford, Eton (as a teacher), the Foreign Office, the secret services.

His education at an elite school gave him an insight into the violence inherent in the creation and maintenance of the British ruling class. In an introduction to a reissue, in 1991, of A Murder of Quality, he described his school, Sherborne, as a hierarchy of sadism:

Boys beat other boys, housemasters beat boys, and even the headmaster turned his hand to beating boys when the crime was held to be sufficiently heinous…. I don’t know whether masters beat masters but, in any case, I loathed them, and I loathed their grotesque allegiances most of all.

That idea of allegiances, including allegiance to one’s country, being potentially grotesque runs through le Carré’s work. And, in his early career as an intelligence officer in postwar Germany, Cornwell experienced the cynical transformation of institutional ideals when bad, pro-Nazi Germans suddenly became good (which is to say anti-Communist) Germans. “Those Orwellian ideologic[al] leaps,” he recalled in 1987, “from quite early in my own life left scars.”

It may be, indeed, that le Carré is such a popular novelist, especially among men of the professional classes, not merely because he uses the thriller form so deftly but because he describes so brilliantly the way all male-dominated institutions work. You don’t have to be a spy to identify with the trials of Leamas or Smiley or of Toby Bell in A Delicate Truth—toiling in the ranks of a multinational corporation, or a university, or even a church will do just as well.

Yet what has been truly typical of le Carré has not been just this distrust of institutions. It is that the repulsion has been at war with an almost equal sense of attraction. In that introduction to A Murder of Quality, he declares himself, revealingly, to have been “constantly repelled by the very institutions that drew me.” One might, of course, reverse the emphasis and say that he was constantly drawn toward the very institutions that repelled him. In his recent New Yorker essay, he refers quite casually to Paul Dehn, the scriptwriter for the film version of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, as “family,” meaning not a blood relationship but something perhaps even deeper: a shared history as a practitioner of the dark arts. (Dehn had worked for British military intelligence.) These institutions took the place of a family for Cornwell, and le Carré’s relationship to them in his spy novels is familial in its mixture of love and hate. The family of spies had a quasi-religious power.

In a 1989 interview with Der Spiegel, Cornwell explained why he returned to the Secret Intelligence Service (known by its members as the Firm) after he left to attend Oxford:

I think I was attracted by the idea of penetrating to a secret center, to what actually makes up the world in its essence. In my quest for a moral institution I believed that somewhere in the heart of the brotherhood of intelligence the key was to be found to our identity, to our collective desires and to our destiny…. I grew up in the decline of the tradition of the Empire, and I believe I considered our secret intelligence service to be the last church of this Empire theology.

In classic le Carré, the institutions of the British state may be unpleasant, but they still have this powerful allure. Even Pym, the traitorous double agent in A Perfect Spy, who is the most autobiographical of le Carré’s protagonists,

loved the Firm…. He adored its rough, uncomprehending trust in him, its misuse of him, its tweedy bear-hugs, flawed romanticism and cock-eyed integrity.

To return to the religious analogy, George Smiley is like a priest who knows that the Pope is corrupt but who remains a devout Catholic.

From the publication of The Russia House in 1989 onward, it was clear that le Carré had lost patience with Control’s (and Smiley’s) self-justification, the idea that all kinds of “disagreeable things” can be justified if they allow innocent citizens to sleep soundly in their beds. There was still, nonetheless, the sense that the Firm retained a formidable presence, that it still functioned as the collective unconscious of Britain, or at least of the English ruling class.

This is what is so striking in A Delicate Truth—all of this lingering magnetism of the secret state is gone. The drama of love and hate, of attraction and repulsion, is no longer being played out. There is no murky world of impossibly mixed motivations, no tangled intertwining of good and evil. There is barely even repulsion. The novel’s palpable anger is driven above all by the sense that the British state itself has become a paltry vestige. It no longer has even the tatty romance of imperial decline. The decline is complete. Britain, as it appears in the novel, is a client state, a pawn not merely of the United States but of a privatized, money-driven, outsourced US “security” corporation.

Now the last church of empire is a marginal sect: the official secret service is barely present in A Delicate Truth. It has been replaced by what Bell calls

the Deep State…the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.

The old civil service is now a puny thing. Bell’s friend Laura, a gifted “Treasury boffin,” complains that those like her who “want the best for our country” are now “old fashioned” and outnumbered:

New Labour loves Big Greed, and Big Greed has armies of amoral lawyers and accountants on the make and pays them the earth to make rings round us.

In the Department of the Defence, “Half its officials didn’t know whether they were working for the Queen or the arms industry, and didn’t give a hoot as long as their bread was buttered.”

Even in the military special forces, Owens is angered by the increasing use of mercenaries “in it for the ride and the money.” He tells his wife, “I fight for my country, Brigid. Not for the fucking multinationals with their offshore bank accounts.” The enemy in A Delicate Truth is not a cold-war master spy like Smiley’s opposite number Karla. He is Jay Crispin, a bland “forty-something television version of the officer class business executive” whose company sells intelligence and security services as profitable commodities. The Firm has been replaced by an actual firm.

Behind the novel’s rage is the destruction of the illusion that sustains le Carré’s cold war stories. In those narratives, Britain is not just a junior partner to the United States in the confrontation with the Soviet Union. It is a kind of halfway house between the two superpowers, its individualist liberalism almost as distant from the raw capitalism of the US as it is from communism. Now that sense of a distinctive destiny is gone, lost forever in what Toby Bell calls the “illegal, immoral and doomed” Iraq war and Tony Blair’s “truthless and emetic” support for George Bush’s adventures. That Bell speaks for le Carré, or perhaps one should say for David Cornwell, is clear enough.

This makes for a simpler, less richly textured novel than classic-era le Carré. There is none of the psychological drama of the Smiley novels. There is no need for moral complexity, no underlying drama of attraction and repulsion. Bell himself is disappointed by Jay Crispin—having imagined a “shadowy ogre,” he finds himself at war with a hustler in a business suit. The reader will know how he feels—Crispin’s blandness is entirely justified as realism but less than thrilling in a thriller. Bell, Probyn, and Owens, meanwhile, all have a basic, self-sacrificing decency, a sense of moral outrage that propels them to search for the truth, whatever the personal or political consequences. Such decency is admirable but it is one-dimensional. Mixed motives and bad faith are more interesting in fiction than plain goodness.

The fascination of A Delicate Truth lies, therefore, less in its innate qualities as a thriller than in its bleak and angry reflection on the fate of patriotism in a culture where the only respectable motive is monetary profit. This tale unfolds not just after the glories of empire but after the nation-state, an entity that is dwarfed by corporate power. In such a world, men who would have been pillars of the state twenty years ago, serving it loyally in their different ways, can only be heroic—and disloyal—anachronisms.