When Probyn starts probing the issues he runs across conscientious Foreign and Commonwealth Office idealist Toby Bell, who served as private secretary to Fergus Quinn in the lead up to Operation Wildlife. Toby is out to make a difference ... in a post-­imperial, post-cold-war world and becomes increasingly suspicious of Quinn’s dealings with US private intelligence firm Ethical Outcomes, initially through dodgy former British spook Jay Crispin (Third son of a posh Anglo-American family. Best schools. Sandhurst at second attempt. Ten years of bad soldiering. Retirement at forty. We're told voluntary, but one doubts it. Bit of City. Dumped. Bit of spying. Dumped. Sidles up alongside our burgeoning terror industry. Rightly observes that defence contractors are on a roll. Smells the money. Goes for it. Hullo, Ethical Outcomes) though the dealings go all the way up to Mrs. Spencer Hardy of Houston, Tex., better known to the world’s elite as the one and only Miss Maisie.

Toby realizes his minister is hiding something important from him, begins to dig until he uncovers the details and gains the vital evidence by recording a secret meeting on the Cold War era reel-to-reel tape recorder no one thought to remove from the desk he occupies. Sticklers and hair-splitters would no doubt carp about the fact that the ancient device works faultlessly after all these years, but one suspects it was a rather expensive top of the range model that could well have received a biennial service for much of its existence.

Armed with the evidence, Toby goes to diplomat Giles Oakley, who’d been, up to this point, his guardian angel and was largely responsible for Bell’s landing the job in the first place. For his trouble he finds himself suddenly transferred to Beirut while Fergus Quinn suddenly exits the world of politics.

Now, three years later Bell, who le Carré sees as the striving ambitious fellow I fancy myself to have been at much the same age, until I went and messed everything up by writing The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is back in London, having served his penance, and happens to be writing a novel. There’s also a bit more than a dash of the author in Probyn, apart from the fact that both author and protagonist live in rural Cornwall.

The problem for the would-be whistleblowers, of course, is that by trying to lift the lid on the details of a botched operation and bring its authors into the spotlight they’re meddling in matters that a secret state that relies on plausible deniability and subcontracts out its dirty work to maintain that deniability would prefer to leave under the carpet, so we’re headed straight into classic conspiracy thriller territory, as the meagre forces of good and righteousness race to assemble evidence before they can be silenced, which leads to the inevitable climax.

The sirens multiplied and acquired a more emphatic, bullying tone. At first they seemed to be approaching from one direction only. But as the chorus grew to a howl, and the car brakes screamed in the street outside, Toby couldn’t be certain any more - nobody could be certain, even Emily - which direction they were coming from.

That’s the final paragraph, and you might regard quoting it as verging on spoiler territory, but you knew (or at least I can claim that I did) that it was always going to end in tears. Like most of the key events in the plot line, the consequences are kept offstage, which only adds to the underlying menace that lies behind the seemingly affable old-boy mentality that appears to operate among the upper echelons of Her Majesty's Foreign and Commonwealth Office. 

That’s familiar territory for long term le Carré fans, but the ground rules and the goal posts, in the wake of 9/11, the Iraq War and the Global War on Terror, have been moved. While the likes of Giles Oakley have been there all along, they’re smart operators who can read the changes in the wind and are all too willing to climb aboard the neo-con bandwagon. That means, despite the traditions associated with their own armed forces they’ll go along with the outsourcing of sensitive matters like Operation Wildfire to private contractors in it for the money.

As le Carre puts it hereIt’s so much easier if I come to you and say, ‘Here’s the contract, I want you to liberate Sierra Leone, I don’t give a toss who you take with you and try to keep the killing down.’ 

Or, in the words of Fergus Quinn as early as Page 23 of the iBooks eText: Private defence contractors… Where’ve you been? 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. 


© Ian Hughes 2012