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It’s a Mystery: “If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one”

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A Delicate TruthDelicateTruth

By John le Carré
Viking, 2013

Red Sparrow

By Jason Matthews
Scribner, 2013

A famous old spy (whose name I swore never to reveal) once mischievously said to me during a discussion of John le Carré’s novels: “They’re made up. But that doesn’t mean they’re not true.” You better believe him. I do. But while le Carré has changed his focus—he no longer writes about moral ambiguity in the same way and hasn’t for some time—that he still delivers high octane suspense is borne out by his 23rd novel, A Delicate Truth.

It’s a whole new espionage world, and le Carrê is the first to admit this. As the” Honorable” Fergus Quinn, British MP, Fergie to all and sundry, the newly appointed Junior Minister of State to the Foreign Office, latterly of the Ministry of Defense, says early on in the novel:

Private defense contractors…. Name of the game these days. War’s gone corporate, in case you haven’t noticed. Standing professional armies are a bust. Top-heavy, under-equipped, one brigadier for every dozen boots on the ground, and cost a mint. Try a couple of years at Defense if you don’t believe me.

The object of this mini-tirade is a mid-level servant of the Crown introduced to us only by his cover name, Paul Anderson. It is 2008 and Anderson is playing a highly tedious waiting game in a dreary hotel room in Gibraltar. A “reliable has-been” with “an appropriately lackluster record,” he’s been dispatched to Gibraltar to provide governmental credibility. He’s to act as Quinn’s eyes and ears, his “red telephone” as it were, during Operation Wildlife. This top-secret covert op is to be Quinn’s crowning achievement (no pun intended) in the post 9/11 war on terror. It’s being carried out by Quinn in league with British Special Forces and a private American security firm called Ethical Outcomes. The so-called mastermind behind all this is one Jay Crispin, founder of Ethical Outcomes, a “rising star in the ever-growing firmament of private defense contractors.” He’s a particularly slippery piece of work who excels at information peddling and “had made his mark as a trader in small wars.” The HVT (in Foreign Office jargon, High-Value Target) they are infiltrating is an al Qaeda kingpin codenamed Punter:

“…your Jihadist Pimpernel par excellence…not to say your will-o’-the-wisp. He eschews all means of electronic communication, including cellphones and harmless-seeming emails. It’s word of mouth only for Punter, and one courier at a time, never the same one twice….He could smuggle himself across from Morocco under the noses of the coastguards. Or put on an Armani suit, and fly in Club on a Swiss passport. Or charter a private Lear….Money to burn, Punter’s got…”

Punter is buying arms with his bags of gold, and brokering the deal is Aladdin,

the most unprincipled fucking merchant of death on the face of this earth bar none, plus the chosen intimate of the worst dregs of international society…. Aladdin has stashed his treasure in the desert, hence the choice of name. He will notify the successful bidder of its whereabouts when — and only when — he has cut the deal, in this case with none other than Punter himself.

Ultimately, Paul’s role in the mission is behind the front line and away from the action. He’s told it went off like clockwork and was a rousing success. Said information is presumably as solid as that precious bit of British Rock.

Paul, under his real name, Christopher “Kit” Probyn, is awarded a commissionership in the Caribbean and a knighthood. Three years later, Sir Christopher and his wife Suzanne have retired to a North Cornish village to reside in shabby gentility in the Manor an estate owned by her family. While attending the Annual Fayre, he is confronted unexpectedly but certainly not accidentally, by Jeb a disillusioned member of the British Special Forces last encountered by Paul/Kit in the shadow of that Rock!

There was a coming together of certain fragments of recollection that shuffled themselves around like pieces in a kaleidoscope until they formed a pattern, vague at first, then—but only by degrees—disturbing.

There was a belated acknowledgement, sounded deep down by the inner man—then gradually, fearfully, and with a sinking heart accepted by the outer one.

John Le CarreHis sense of foreboding is borne out by Jeb’s disturbing revelations about Wildlife. This good soldier, still traumatized by the experience, needs to share the unspeakably dark side of the mission. It was a monumental cock-up, an exercise in extraordinary rendition mounted by discharged British soldiers out of uniform and American mercenaries who were legally inviolate. Thus it smashed Kit’s rationale for undertaking what now turns out to be a black op—ill-fated from the get go—not to mention lanced Kit’s secret pride at having served the sceptered isle so bravely. What was once described to him “as a certified, bloodless victory over some very bad men” turns out to be anything but.

And hard on the heels of these disclosures Toby Bell enters Kit’s life. Toby serves as Private Secretary, minder and confidential counsel to Minister Quinn during the period leading up to Wildlife. Toby, at 31, is the idealistic wunderkind of the foreign service:

Toby, though modesty forbade him to say so in so many words, wished to make a difference –or, as he had put it a little shamefacedly to his examiners, take part in his country’s discovery of its true identity in a post-imperial, post-Cold War world.

He has come up through the ranks watched over by Giles Oakley the “embassy’s eminence grise —darting, impish Oakley, dyed in all the oceans.” Oakley, Toby’s enigmatic mentor and self-appointed patron, was his section chief on his first overseas posting in Berlin:

Oakley’s job amid myriad others less defined: to supervise the flow of British Intelligence to German liaison. Toby’s to be his spear-carrier…. Are Toby and Giles spies? Not at all! They are blue-chip British career diplomats who have found themselves, like many others, at the trading tables of the free world’s vast intelligence marketplace.

(Small aside: this brings to mind le Carré’s description of his past in a recent New Yorker magazine piece. He is visiting the movie set of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He is about Toby’s age and has come from Bonn where he is Second Secretary at the British Embassy. But heretofore, “I had spent a large chunk of my recent life toiling in the sheltered vineyards of British Intelligence.” How’s that for understatement? Surprise, the whole article is a study in the skillful art — sin? — of omission.)

But well before Toby is dispatched to London and Quinn’s lair, he gets Oakley’s version of Diplomacy 101. The subject is Operation Iraqi Freedom, which makes Toby’s blood boil (le Carré had a few choice anti-American and anti-British words about that at the time):

Oakley’s Cheshire-cat smile softens…. “Where do I sit, you ask. Why at the conference table. Always at the table. I wheedle, I chip away, I argue, I reason, I cajole, I hope. But I do not expect. I adhere to the hallowed diplomatic doctrine of moderation in all things, and I apply it to the heinous crimes of every nation, including my own…. I make a cautious demarche to our revered masters. But I never try to rebuild the Palace of Westminster in a day. Neither, at the risk of being pompous, should you.”

Toby, as it turns out, doesn’t get a chance to rebuild anything. Quinn is keeping him out of the loop. He holds all sorts of clandestine meetings to which Toby is not invited. So, no longer part of the inner sanctum, Toby starts digging. By the time he gets to Kit he is in crisis mode with as many questions as answers. All he knows is that there has been a gigantic cover-up and exposing it leaves him completely vulnerable. So, of course, he teams up with Kit’s very attractive daughter and they go after the guys they think are pulling the strings. This puts them both in harm’s way and leads to a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking climax. In the final analysis, this is a classic conspiracy thriller but with a new noir twist. It’s got a whole host of beautifully etched characters, including some thinly disguised famous Mandarins (le Carré’s favorite word for pompous government officials). A Delicate Truth is an elegantly wrought novel that keeps le Carré at the top of his game.

Not long ago in a New York Times Magazine piece, the author said he is abiding by a message on a large framed poster given him by his children, that he has hung on his office wall. It reads: “Keep Calm and le Carré On.” I hope forever.

Red SparrowLike le Carré, as well as quite a few other well-known spy novelists, Jason Matthews worked as an intelligence agent. His 33 years in the CIA’s Operations Directorate enhances the myriad details of tradecraft within the pages of his remarkable debut novel, Red Sparrow.

It begins with an assignation in Moscow. Nathanial “Nate” Nash, twelve hours into his SDR (surveillance detection route), is numb from the waist down. It’s early September, but snow fell during the early part of his stakeout. Nate is one of a select group of CIA “internal ops” on the opposition’s home ground. He has been running this asset for some time, and calls him “uncle” out of both respect and affection:

Time check: 2217. Twenty-seven year old Nate Nash was two minutes away from meeting the legend, the jewel in the tiara, the most valuable asset in CIA’s stable. …MARBLE: sophisticated, urbane, in his sixties, major general in the SVR, which was the successor to the KGB’s Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the Kremlin’s overseas spies. MARBLE had been in harness fourteen years, a remarkable run considering that Cold War Russian sources survived an average of eighteen months.

…MARBLE was now chief of the Americas Department in SVR, a position of colossal access, but he was old school KGB, had earned his spurs (and general’s star) during an overseas career spectacular not only for its operational triumphs, but because MARBLE had survived the purges and reforms and internal power struggles…. He was an uncommon, inestimable asset.

Suddenly for Nate and his quarry, things begin to get hairy. Cars stealthily running with their parking lights on are in their orbit. Nate, acting with lightning speed, gets MARBLE towards safety and just about manages his own escape. But the consequences are far reaching. His mediocre CIA Chief of Station Gondorf (“Gondork” behind his back) eagerly makes Nate the scapegoat for the near miss, and on the grounds of nearly blowing his asset’s cover, reassigns him to the CIA station in Helsinki.

Helsinki is run by two old intelligence pros, Thomas Forsyth Chief of Station and Marty Gable Deputy Chief. Gable takes Nate to lunch:

Without preamble or embarrassment, he asked Nate what the fuck happened in Moscow between him and that asshole Gondorf…. Nate explained briefly. Gable pointed at him with his fork. “Listen up: Remember two things about this fucking business. You can never mature as an operator unless you’ve failed, large, at least once.” ….Nate had heard that Gable was a legend. He was loyal to his assets, then to his friends, then to CIA, in that order. There was nothing he hadn’t seen, and he knew what was important…. Marty Gable an old whore who had an ashtray in his office made from a human skull from either Cambodia or Miami—he claimed he could not remember which.

Meanwhile, back at SVR headquarters, the Deputy Director Ivan “Vanya” Egerov remains in a state of siege. He has not gotten over the fact that “this little prick Nash met with a source…who is someone important. And those idiots just missed him.” It’s a misstep that could derail Egerov’s career. Putin liked him. He was close to the top:

But the handler at a snake farm inevitably is bitten unless he exercises great care. Today’s Kremlin was suits and ties, press secretaries, smiling summit meetings, but anyone who had been around for any length of time knew that nothing had changed since Stalin, really…different secrets nowadays, but the same as ever, secrets that needed stealing.

First and foremost, Egerov must find the Russian traitor Nate was running. The assignment goes to his niece Dominika. She is beautiful, smart, and highly trained. She is a graduate of the Foreign Intelligence Academy (AVR), and sparrow school, where men and women learn the art of espionage seduction. In other words, they become accomplished operating as bait in what is called a honey trap. She is unusual in two other respects: one, she has a prodigious (photographic) memory. Two, she has the attributes of a synesthete, a person who perceives sounds, or letters, or numbers as colors. Even more unusual is the fact that her synesthesia extends to human reactions; she sees emotional content as colors, she is infallible at ferreting out liars. The perfect spook!

Dominika is consigned to Helsinki where she and Nate begin an elaborate game of cat and mouse. It turns into a complicated, fascinating match of spy-vs.-spy with all the ramifications such a relationship connotes. While the hunt for the Red mole is the centerpiece of the puzzle, it is but one aspect of Matthews’s intricate, elaborate tale. He weaves a compelling web of deceit and betrayal as it is practiced at the highest levels by those who toil in the wilderness of mirrors.

(This lovely phrase for the world of intelligence was coined by the CIA’s so-called answer to the Delphic Oracle, James Jesus Angleton. He got it from T.S. Eliot’s poem Gerontion: “In a wilderness of mirrors what will the spider do, suspend its operations, will the weevil Delay?”)

In Red Sparrow, Angleton is characterized thus by Simon Benford, the quirky, flamboyant head of CIA counterintelligence:

For ten years he thought every Soviet agent was a double…every piece of information was disinformation. He was charming and poisonous and paranoid and utterly convinced that his night sweats were reality. …I keep his picture to remind me not to rebuild his asylum.

As in le Carré’s books, Benford is one of a boisterous, mixed bag of characters. They carry out the nonstop action that moves sure-footedly around an authentically evoked globe. It is a measure of Jason Matthews’s skill that MARBLE’s identity remains hidden until almost the very end. And then you see how artfully the clues were hidden in plain sight. Red Sparrow is crack spy fiction: fresh, inventive and accomplished.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.