A Delicate Truth is a 2013 spy novel by John le Carré. Set in 2008 and 2011, the book features a British/American covert mission in Gibraltar and the subsequent consequences for two British civil servants.
Le Carré describes this as not only his most British novel but also his most autobiographical work in years. The author told The Daily Telegraph that he has based two of the book's characters on himself. Le Carré sees Toby Bell as "the thirty-something rising star of Her Majesty's Foreign Service ... the striving ambitious fellow I fancy myself to have been at much the same age." – whereas Sir Christopher ("Kit") Probyn is "a retired Foreign Office civil servant, who lives in rural Cornwall." – the author has "lived in a clifftop house outside St Buryan, near Land's End, for more than 40 years."
In 2008 a civil servant in the Foreign Office, known by his alias "Paul Anderson", is recruited by a Foreign Office junior minister, Fergus Quinn, to take part in an operation code-named Wildlife. Paul goes to Gibraltar and joins a small team of British Special Forces. The covert operation which is directed by Quinn and an employee of "Security contractors" Ethical named Elliot is compromised when Quinn and Elliot insist that the soldiers raid an abandoned house where, despite the absence of proof, they assume a high-ranking jihadist is hiding and insist that the operation was a success.
Quinn's newly appointed Private Secretary, Toby Bell, becomes suspicious of his secretive nature and his close ties with Jay Crispin, the founder of Ethical. Bell sees Quinn with Crispin during diplomatic trips to Brussels, Prague, and Berlin, and learns that the two met during Quinn's time at Harvard. Bell learns that Quinn was saved from scandal after it was discovered that Crispin was found running a privatised spy shop within the Ministry of Defence. Bell learns that Quinn and Crispin are still secretly meeting in London. Against all the rules, Bell makes a recording of a meeting on Operation Wildlife.
In 2011 Sir Christopher "Kit" Probyn, now retired and living in Cornwall is surprised by the British team's commander, Jeb, who informs him they had not captured the jihadist leader but had killed an innocent woman and her child. Probyn contacts Jay Crispin, who assured him that nobody was killed during the operation. Jeb then provides Probyn a detailed account of the botched operation, and the two decide to meet and write a complete report on Wildlife. When Jeb fails to show up at the meeting, Probyn contacts Toby Bell to test where his loyalty lies.
Probyn is surprised to discover that Bell was kept entirely in the dark about Wildlife and that his entire knowledge of the case stems from the taped meeting record. Toby acquires a lead on Jeb from medical doctor Emily Probyn, Kit's daughter. Inquiring on the whereabouts of Jeb, they discover him assassinated, with the murder poorly disguised as suicide and signs of a police cover-up. Kit Probyn attempts to trigger an official investigation by communicating his half of the Wildlife dossier to the Foreign Office, but is rebuffed and threatened with a secret trial. Toby contacts "Shorty", Jeb's former teammate and now a henchman of Crispin's, in the hope of extracting information and possibly recruit him for his investigation. Beforehand, Toby contacts Oakley, now a private banker, in the hope of acquiring his support, but is rebuffed.
At the meeting with "Shorty", Toby is abducted by Crispin's henchmen and led to his lair. Crispin attempts to recruit Toby, but the latter refuses, reasoning that the offer is a sign that Crispin is actually afraid of him, having overreached so much with Jeb's murder that his high-ranking connections will not protect him anymore. Toby returns home, where he is beaten to within an inch of his life by unidentified attackers, as a warning not to pursue further. He is rescued by Dr. Emily Probyn; soon after, Oakley, having had a change of heart, transmits the "Aftermath and Recommendations" dossier on Wildlife to Toby. Toby and Emily run to a nearby cybercafé and email copies of the completed dossier to major media outlets and the Press Department of the Foreign Office. Sirens are heard coming from all directions.
Publishers Weekly describes the novel as "entertainingly labyrinthine if overly polemical." The anonymous reviewer believes that le Carré "tells a great story in sterling prose, but he veers dangerously close to farce and caricature, particularly with the comically amoral Americans. His best work has been about the moral ambiguity of spying, while this novel feels as if the issue of who's bad and who's good is too neatly sewn up."
Kirkus Reviews notes that le Carré "resolutely keeping potential action sequences just offstage," and "focuses instead on the moral rot and creeping terror barely concealed by the affable old-boy blather that marks the pillars of the intelligence community."
Bill Ott, writing for Booklist, believes "Le Carré further establishes himself as a master of a new, shockingly realistic kind of noir in which right-thinking individuals who challenge the institutional order of things always lose."
A Delicate Truth was broadcast in ten parts on BBC Radio 4 in May 2013. It was abridged by Sally Marmion and was read by Damian Lewis.
In 2013 Penguin Books released an Audio Download version of A Delicate Truth. Unusually this is narrated by Le Carré himself. Mark Lawson, writing for The Guardian newspaper, considered that "[Le Carré's] audiobook recordings [provide] an extra treat for his readers. Every speaker has a specified accent and there is an acute ear for other verbal tells, from the casual profanity of younger characters, regardless of class, to the fact that Bell knows that he has been frozen out when the minister stops calling him "Tobe" and reverts to "Toby"."
In April 2013, Adam Chitwood noted in Collider.com that screenwriter William Monahan is "in advanced talks to adapt ... A Delicate Truth ... BBC Films is developing the adaptation but there's no timetable for when the pic might get in front of cameras."