A mid-level diplomat called Paul is sent on a mission to Gibralter with an army detachment and some mercenaries to capture a terrorist about to do an arms deal. Paul’s role is to act as the “red telephone,” keeping the minister in charge, Quinn, appraised. The agreement is that no action will be taken on British soil without British approval.
A person is spotted in the houses that the teams are monitoring, and there is an argument about whether to go ahead. The British, lead by a Welshman named Jeb and backed by Paul, argue that there is not enough evidence to proceed, but the mercenaries start to move anyway, and Quinn then gives permission to go. During the actual mission, though, all the monitors in the command center where Paul is waiting go dead, and Paul has to take the word of Elliott, the head mercenary, that everything went as planned.
Returning to a few days before the mission, Tony Bell, Quinn’s private secretary, is looking for help. For months, Quinn has been going AWOL, leaving him out of meetings, and keeping documents from him.
Toby has unofficially been informed that Quinn was censured a few years ago for a mission that went wrong involving a mercenary company lead by Jay Crispin. Quinn was forgiven but told not to consort with Crispin. Now Toby finds that Quinn has been meeting with Crispin and even sneaking him into the Foreign Office on the weekend. However, Toby is not supposed to know about the prior incident, so he has nowhere to turn. Taking a drastic decision, he secretly tapes a meeting about the mission to Gibralter. But his mentor, who originally was the one to break confidentiality, fails him, and soon he is sent to another posting.
A few years later, Kit Probyn, lately known as Paul, has retired to his wife’s property in Cornwall when he runs into Jeb, no longer a soldier but a leather worker who makes the rounds of fairs. Jeb tells him that the Gibralter mission, which Kit thought was a success, actually went horribly wrong and that Jeb himself was used as the fall guy. When Kit decides to collect evidence and blow the whistle, he turns to Toby with what he has learned. Although Toby is more aware of the dangers of their task than Kit is, neither has any idea of what they are getting into.
This novel is another of Le Carré’s taut and cynical thrillers, now moving from espionage to the theme of mixing private enterprise with politics and the fight against terrorism. Although not quite up there with The Constant Gardener, which I think is one of the best and most touching of Le Carré’s post-Cold War thrillers, it is deeply involving and tense. With Le Carré, you are never sure of whether good or evil will win, which makes his novels that much more exciting. He is really the master of this genre.