Too Much of a So-So Thing
Monday, July 21, 2008
RULES OF DECEPTION
By Christopher Reich
Doubleday. 390 pp. $24.95
"Rules of Deception," Christopher Reich's new international spy thriller, is a most perplexing piece of work. At its best, it's first-rate popular fiction: sharply written, solidly researched, sophisticated, suspenseful, even surprising. For a time, I thought Reich was going to produce something exceptional: perhaps a "Day of the Jackal" for our age of terrorism. But then the novel began to fall apart. Too many coincidences. Too many chase scenes with no point. Too many miraculous escapes by the hero. The publisher calls the novel "a page-turner to end all page-turners," but this reader finally was turning the pages not with excitement but dismay. There are pleasures to be found here, but in the end "Rules of Deception" is a missed opportunity.
Reich offers three plots that eventually merge. In the first, an idealistic young American doctor, Jonathan Ransom, loses his beloved wife in a skiing accident in the Swiss Alps, only to learn that she had been leading a double life as a spy. Ransom, of course, determines to dig out the truth about her. He thus becomes that classic figure (played in movies by Jimmy Stewart in decades past, and perhaps by Matt Damon today), the stubborn amateur, in over his head, who soon has the police trying to arrest him and the villains trying to kill him. As Ransom slowly discovers the truth about his wife's duplicity -- and as various murders, double-crosses, deceptions and chases ensue -- U.S. and Swiss authorities learn about a high-tech drone that is going to be used to bring down a commercial airliner in Switzerland. These intelligence agencies also learn that Iran has secretly obtained nuclear weapons and an attack on Israel is imminent. For much of the way, these plots unfold skillfully, with vivid characters and rich details.
Reich offers real-world insights such as this: "If the CIA wanted to question someone, they sent him to Jordan. If they wanted to torture him, they sent him to Syria. If they wanted him to disappear off the face of the earth, they sent him to Egypt." We see a CIA official supervising Syrian police as they torture a terrorist. First, they pull out his fingernails, then they cut off a finger, and finally they put him in a vat of water that is rapidly reaching a boil. He talks. (If they hadn't been pressed for time, we're told, the torturers would have brought in the terrorist's mother or sisters, confident that threats to them would also produce the truth.) Torture aside, Reich does a good job of showing how passports can be forged, how modern technology has revolutionized the spy game, and how nuclear war between Iran and Israel might play out. He also makes the most of his novel's European setting, with loving portraits of the inns and cafes and forests of France and Switzerland.
But problems arise. The reader suspects, long before our clueless hero, that he's trusting people he shouldn't trust. In his frequent clashes with authority, Ransom too often has to climb up hotel balconies or down drainpipes to make his escapes. A rather silly ruse is used to enable an assassin to track Ransom across Europe. Duplicities abound. A dramatic but implausible scene in which two senior CIA officials try to shoot each other is paralleled by another in which two senior Swiss officials try to arrest each other. Elsewhere, it's hard to say which character is the more ludicrous cliche: the filthy-rich neo-Nazi undone by photos of his sexual perversity or the Christ-crazed U.S. general who promotes Israel's destruction of Iran to fulfill biblical prophecy. "The Forces of Gog and Magog were set to do battle on the plains of Armageddon," we learn, and the Rapture also figures in the general's strategy. Finally, if we're told of a character, "Each beat of his heart hammered a nail into his chest," we should not be told six pages later that another character's heart is "pounding loud enough to be heard in Austria." Enough with the hearts! One senior editor tells us in the book's publicity material that he stayed up all night to read the manuscript and called the publisher the next morning with the joyous news. Perhaps they all should have calmed down and considered how to improve Reich's impressive but flawed draft.
Reich, for his part, has said that "everything I learned about writing, I got from [John] le Carré." Well, he may admire the English master, but this relentless page-turner is nothing like the brooding masterpieces le Carré produced in his prime. Nor, because of various self-inflicted wounds, does "Rules of Deception" equal "The Day of the Jackal" or the expert spy thrillers that the Englishman who called himself Trevanian (real name Rodney Whitaker) published in the 1970s. Reich's publicists compare him to Robert Ludlum, and they may have a point. I once confessed to a celebrated New York editor that I found Ludlum unreadable. The editor replied that Ludlum wasn't writing for me but for tired businessmen, setting out on transcontinental flights, who loved a really convoluted conspiracy. "Rules of Deception" may out-Ludlum Ludlum where fiendish conspiracies are concerned, but a writer of Reich's talent should have done better.