Such is the strength of the authenticity that Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist, manages to instill in his eighth spy novel. His timing isn’t bad, either, considering that in Pakistan the diplomatic dust is still settling from the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. For better and for worse, you emerge from its pages as if from a top-level security briefing — confident that you have been let in on the deepest secrets, yet also feeling a bit distant from the participants, who tend to hold you at arm’s length even at their most intimate moments.
This straight-from-the-case-file feeling is enhanced by how well Ignatius describes the daily machinations of the various players. Careerist CIA personnel are at war with each other almost as much as with the enemy. The wily chief of their Pakistani counterpart, Inter-Services Intelligence, must balance a need to maintain friendly U.S. relations against the coziness of his give-and-take with jihadists. Then there are the bearded sages of the Pashtun borderlands, whose abiding tribal codes don’t easily mix with the American zeal for quick results.
Add it up, and you’ve got an information bazaar of damaged goods in which all the haggling parties must keep one eye on their wallet and another on their back. It is intriguing stuff, clearly told.
Escorting us into this marketplace of deception is Sophie Marx, a CIA officer working for the Hit Parade, a new agency offshoot for covert action. Operating well beyond the reach of headquarters, the Hit Parade’s minions roam the globe under deep cover with bags of cash and unorthodox marching orders: Buy peace in the borderlands, warlord by warlord.
But the Hit Parade has sprung a leak in Pakistan, and its operatives have begun to disappear. Marx must find the leak and plug it before one of two things happens: Either all of the Hit Parade’s people are wiped out or the rest of the world discovers all the illegal things they’ve been up to.
Her nemesis, known to us but not to the CIA or even the ISI, is Omar al-Wazir, a contemplative number-cruncher from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Ignatius gives us some of his best writing when introducing Omar, especially in describing the seminal event that set him on the path to revenge. In the book’s opening scene, in which Omar goes for a walk with his younger brother, Karimullah, Ignatius offers us one of those tidy paragraphs that, like the best writing of John le Carre, nail the essence of two characters with a few phrases of chiseled beauty: “Omar is nearly forty, and a city man now, whose knees ache as he climbs the rocky escarpment and whose lungs gasp for breath when he stands atop the ridgeline, only the thorny shrubs of acacia for cover. Karimullah is nimble, too much so, his brother thinks, hardened to muscle and bone by the years of war in these mountains. The boy looks like a wolf: narrow-faced, relentless, ravenous for the kill.”
Omar reappears throughout the novel, but unfortunately we never feel quite as close to him again. And while we end up rooting for Marx, our allegiance comes partly by default, as a reaction against her glib, self-serving boss, the epitome of sloganeering American hubris.
Some of the distance these characters maintain may be due to the chilly nature of their profession. They’re trained to reveal little, and even when we’re privy to their thoughts, they still feel a step removed from the warmth of candor. Even the ones who die give us little reason to mourn their passing.
Yet the pacing is brisk, the writing is clean and efficient, and the plot is blessedly free of that fate-of-the-world melodrama that destroys far too many so-called thrillers. We come away convinced that this is what it’s really like out there for those silent soldiers of the secret world, working in the world’s bleakest corners.
Fesperman is the author of seven novels, including “The Warlord’s Son” and “Layover in Dubai,” available this June in paperback.