The distinguished chronicler of Cold War espionage and its costs casts his cold eye on the fog of war and its legacy when the war sets terrorists against the mercenaries and independent contractors to whom international security has been farmed out.
A colorless midlevel civil servant is plucked from the anonymous ranks of the Foreign Office, given a wafer-thin cover identity as statistician Paul Anderson and packed off to Gibraltar, where he’s to serve as the eyes and ears and, mainly, the yea or nay of rising Member of Parliament Fergus Quinn, who can’t afford to be directly connected to Operation Wildlife. On the crucial night the forces in question are to disrupt an arms deal and grab a jihadist purchaser, both Paul and Jeb Owens, the senior military commander on the ground, smell a rat and advise against completing the operation. But they’re overridden by Quinn, who says, “I recommend but do not command” that Operation Wildlife be completed. Shortly after its execution, Paul, promised “[m]edals all round,” is bundled back into a plane bound for home. Sure enough, he emerges from the hush-hush affair with a knighthood and the unspoken thanks of a grateful monarch. Three years later, however, he happens to run into Jeb and hears the ruined soldier tell a decidedly less glorious story of the operation that involves extraordinary rendition, a dead mother and child, and a callous coverup. At the same time, Quinn’s Private Secretary Toby Bell also becomes painfully aware of irregularities in the official record and confronts Jay Crispin, the Houston-based head of the private intelligence firm Ethical Outcomes, for answers. What he gets instead are more questions and personal danger.
Resolutely keeping potential action sequences just offstage, le Carré (Our Kind of Traitor, 2010, etc.) 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.