Roger Ferris, International Man of Mystery

Reviewed by Adrian McKinty,
author of seven novels, including his most recent thriller, "The Bloomsday Dead"
Thursday, April 19, 2007


By David Ignatius

Norton. 349 pp. $24.95

David Ignatius must have one of those passports with extra visa pages in the middle. In the course of his new spy novel, "Body of Lies," the hero, CIA man Roger Ferris, travels to Berlin, Amman, Iraq, back to Langley, Rome, Geneva, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, the Jordan Valley, Ankara, Aleppo, Tripoli, Nicosia and Damascus. All of these locales are described in convincing detail, and the wealth of smells, colors, street names and foods convinces us that Ferris is actually there -- and so are we.

It has been eight years since the appearance of the last book by Ignatius, who writes a column for The Washington Post -- the underappreciated "Sun King" -- and, of course, in that time the world has changed utterly. For the clever, young Ferris, every day "now and forever is the day after September 11, 2001." A master terrorist known only as Suleiman has been planting car bombs all over Western Europe; Ferris is tasked with penetrating Suleiman's cell and capturing, killing or discrediting the man himself. Ferris is not as ethically conflicted as many a contemporary thriller hero, and although the people he works with are of dubious morality, he himself remains focused on the task at hand. When things take an unpleasant turn or the innocent get hurt, Ferris forces himself to remember the people on the upper floors of the World Trade Center. After reliving the horror of 9/11, he recites his personal mantra: "This is a war. . . . You are a soldier. More people will die unless you do your job."

Using a ruse that British intelligence fooled the Nazis with in World War II, Ferris begins to worm his way inside Suleiman's network. After being wounded in a bombing in Iraq, he recuperates in one of the more pleasant wings of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. And as he gets better, his marriage begins to fall apart. He seems curiously unfazed by this, but back in Amman, Jordan, we discover that he is already falling for another woman.

Ferris is an interesting character -- idealistic, passionate, wholly believable -- and his adventures make for a story that is fast-paced and psychologically deep. Ignatius has taken his time over this book and is confident enough in his material to keep the gadgetry and technical jargon to a minimum.

The novel, however, is not without flaws. Ignatius seems to have swallowed whole the Edward Said pill and made a conscious decision that he will not resort to cliche or condescension in his descriptions of the Middle East. As a result, he bends over backward to portray his Arab characters as wise, honorable and decent. We find few instances of anti-Semitism in any of the Arab countries Ferris visits, and even in the misery of a Palestinian refugee camp, we see only fading Yasser Arafat posters rather than venomous anti-Jewish slogans or Hamas hate graffiti. At times, Ignatius seems almost embarrassed that his villain is an actual Arab terrorist (albeit one with a high IQ and a warped sense of morality), but he needn't be: His portrayal of the Arab world is sensitive, and no one is going to confuse David Ignatius of The Post with the overnight man on Fox News.

The sexual mores of al-Qaeda's disciples are gently mocked, but the reverent tone toward Islam echoes that of the pious Crusades movie "Kingdom of Heaven" (2005), and it is perhaps not surprising that "Body of Lies" has already been optioned for that film's director, Ridley Scott.

The book is well researched, but even seasoned reporters sometimes nod. The Jordanian city of Petra was not built by the Romans, as Ignatius implies, but by the semi-nomadic Nabateans; the British evacuation at Dunkirk took place in 1940, not 1939; the gold dome on the Jerusalem plateau known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the noble sanctuary belongs to the Dome of the Rock, not the nearby al-Aqsa Mosque; and the outskirts of Jerusalem cannot be seen from the Dead Sea, despite what the tour guides tell you.

Still, in a thriller, these are quibbles. The last third of the book moves very quickly, and the tension becomes palpable. The denouement is surprising, exciting and effective. After being blown up, shot at, kidnapped and tortured, Ferris must suffer yet more horrors to finally get his man, and by this stage we are rooting for him all the way.

A sterner editor would have cut the final few pages and made the ending of "Body of Lies" more fashionably open-textured and incomplete, but I liked Ignatius's take: Ferris may be young, but he is throwback to an earlier time, and the ending suits him. Hollywood will like it, too. The book works extremely well, and its imagery and characters linger in the memory. We need gifted and intelligent thriller writers like David Ignatius. One hopes that he has another book in the planning stage and is already filling in form DS-4085, requesting yet more visa pages for his well-worn passport.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company