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John le Carré’s latest lacks urgency but still absorbs

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For readers unfamiliar with author John le Carré, here’s a primer: He is best known for his British Cold War spy novels, including “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (Victor Gollancz & Pan, 1963) and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974). His fictional British intelligence officer, George Smiley, is probably the most famous literary master spy of the past 50 years.

Le Carré has won numerous awards and seen several of his novels turned into movies and miniseries. Since the end of the Cold War, le Carré has concentrated on writing about serious global problems, such as money laundering, terrorism and corporate greed.

In his latest book, “A Delicate Truth” (Viking, 2013), le Carré first describes a secret mission – codenamed “Wildlife” – from the point of view of a mid-level British civil servant, who goes by the alias “Paul.” Wildlife is assigned to capture a dangerous arms smuggler.

Readers then meet a foreign service agent, Toby Bell, who learns about the mission three years later while working for a British cabinet minister. In the meantime, “Paul,” whose real name is Sir Christopher Probyn, has retired. One of the British soldiers involved in the original mission contacts Probyn, claiming that the mission was a fraud, a failure and a tragedy.

What can and should Bell and Probyn do about the truth of Wildlife? What would public disclosure cost each man?

The first half of “A Delicate Truth” is a rather plodding read – a surprise, especially given how quickly le Carré’s earlier books drew me in. The characters aren’t gripping, there are too many holes about Wildlife and the history and exposition of Bell’s service career prove, frankly, boring.

But the second half of the book more than makes up for what’s lacking at the beginning, providing most of the thrills and excitement of le Carré’s earlier novels.

The characters face difficult moral dilemmas, race to uncover the truth and fear for their lives. Familiar le Carré themes happily come into play, such as loyalty to self and truth versus loyalty to duty and country.

Despite the fact that “A Delicate Truth” is well-written and generally absorbing, le Carré’s topics of gun-running and terrorism are simply not as captivating as his earlier Cold War themes, largely because there is not as much at stake.

I recommend “A Delicate Truth” for fiction-oriented book clubs, particularly those that enjoy spy and mystery novels. The average reader, however, may not find it as compelling as le Carré’s earlier works.

Leslie Ashmore, a longtime Mountain View resident, belongs to two book clubs.

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