The Russia House: A Novel

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War is Just Business: John le Carré’s A Delicate Truth

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I’ve been using John Le Carré for a while now. This is how it goes: I’ll be on a panel somewhere, in one city or another, or in front of a crowd in a bookstore — I’m using the word “crowd” in the loosest possible sense — and the genre question will come up. It comes up because I write the kind of novels that are sometimes called crime fiction and sometimes called literary fiction, whatever that is.

It’s no doubt lazy of me to use more or less the same answer every time, but in all fairness, it’s always more or less the same question and my opinion on the matter hasn’t changed. Someone will ask whether I consider myself a crime writer, or if I consciously set out to write crime fiction, or if I think people who don’t usually read crime fiction will like my books, or some variation thereof, and I’ll trot out the response, refined over several bookstores and festivals.

I’ll talk about the permeability of the borders between genre, the subjectivity of it all, the way my books are literary fiction in North America but thrillers in France, and at some point I always find myself citing Le Carré’s The Russia House. The Russia House is a straight-up Cold War spy novel. It’s also a beautifully written story about love and loyalty. It’s my opinion that it’s as literary — whatever that means — as anything out there. My belief is that if we put up an arbitrary wall between books like The Russia House and books that are more traditionally thought of as literary fiction, we do so to our detriment. Le Carré is worth reading whether you think you like genre fiction or not.

In A Delicate Truth, Le Carré skirts the shadows of the military-industrial complex. The plot concerns a top-secret counter-terrorism operation mounted on Gibraltar. A terrorist — or “high-value target,” in the euphemistic language of the modern age — is meeting a contact in a house by the beach. The plan, code-named Operation Wildlife, involves a two-pronged approach: a small force of British soldiers out of uniform will approach by land and seize the target. They’ll deliver the target to American mercenaries waiting on the beach, who will spirit him to a ship waiting just off shore and out into international waters.

In other words, extraordinary rendition. The plan is so foul that it can only be sold by means of gymnastic moral contortions and assurances of non-responsibility. As the newly appointed Junior Foreign Office minister Fergus Quinn puts it, in an explanation to one of the men who will shortly be on the ground, the British team will merely be apprehending a criminal on British territory, at which point the British team’s orders will require handing over the criminal to the non-British force waiting on the beach, and “[S]hould this non-British seaborne team,” Quinn explains:
of its own volition, elect to abstract or exfiltrate that target and remove him from the jurisdiction — i.e., out of British territorial waters — neither you personally, nor any member of your team, will be complicit in that act. To recapitulate… you are a landborne protection force exercising its duty of defending sovereign British territory in a totally legal and legitimate manner under international law, and you have no further responsibility whatsoever for the outcome of the operation, be you clad in military uniform or civilian attire.
You don’t know that the target is going to be tortured, in other words, or at least you can tell yourself you don’t know, and this sliver of uncertainty should be enough — just barely — to allow you to sleep at night. You’re just doing your duty.

This sort of sales pitch is sometimes all it takes to get more-or-less decent people to slip into morally questionable territory, and the territory here is very questionable indeed. Fergus Quinn has aligned himself with a shady private defense contractor, Jay Crispin, and his companion, Maisie Hardy of Houston, Texas, a CIA agent with ties to the American far right.

The plan unfolds under extraordinary secrecy. Even Toby Bell, Quinn’s private secretary, is not cleared for it. Quinn recruits a reliable has-been of a Foreign Office agent, the decent but not terribly sharp Kit Probyn, and dispatches him to Gibraltar to be the Foreign Office’s man on the ground. On the night of the operation, Probyn waits alone on a hillside while the British team approaches the target. Here as everywhere in this book, ambiguity reigns, and even on the ground it’s difficult to be certain what, exactly, is going on:
Above the clatter of the wind came a clicking sound like dominoes collapsing: two sets of clicks, then nothing. He thought he heard a yell but he was listening too hard to know for sure. It was the wind. It was the nightingale. No, it was the owl.
Probyn doesn’t see the British team again. He is told that everything went according to plan and whisked out of Gibraltar. He moves on to a cushy posting in the Caribbean, while Toby Bell is assigned on short notice to Beirut.

Three years later, one of the ex-soldiers involved in the Gibraltar operation appears in Probyn’s village. Not only did Operation Wildlife not go at all according to plan, the ex-soldier insists, but innocent people were killed.

It’s possible that this ex-soldier is mentally ill and delusional, as the defense contractor Jay Crispin insists. It’s also possible that the ex-soldier’s telling the truth, that the intelligence was flawed and the operation went terribly wrong. Or perhaps the success or failure of the mission was never the point. Whether the mission went exactly according to plan or didn’t, Jay Crispin would presumably have made a great deal of money as a private contractor on an operation of this scale.

In the post-Cold War era, Le Carré has found a reliable cast of villains in the men who deal privately in weaponry and war. Jay Crispin isn’t terribly far removed from Richard Onslow Roper, the arms dealer who stalks through The Night Manager. These are men of a certain class and education, well-dressed and impeccably mannered predators, the beauty of their possessions matched only by their disinterest in the human cost of their products and services. It’s just business.

A Delicate Truth presents an exceedingly dark vision of an increasingly privatized world of intelligence and warfare. Toby Bell has always been troubled by the shadiness of the Gibraltar affair. When Kit Probyn contacts him, disturbed by the ex-soldier’s revelations and eager to figure out what happened, Bell decides to help.

There are moments when the machinery of plot grinds a little too loudly — if you’re on a mission to uncover the truth, it’s nice when a knowledgeable veteran of the British Foreign Service rises out of the woodwork to offer helpful slivers of background information, but having this happen two or three times seems unusually lucky — but Le Carré remains formidable. Here, as elsewhere in his body of work, Le Carré proves himself a master of character development.

Bell and Probyn are flawed but essentially decent men, trying to do the right thing in a landscape where it’s not at all clear what the right thing to do might be. There is a sketchiness at the heart of this novel, a sense of unobtainable information, the truth always just out of sight. Every answer leads to more questions. It’s all shadow and suggestion, but the shadows are the point.

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