The Reluctant Spy

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Reviewed by Brigitte Weeks
Sunday, November 9, 2008


By Diane Johnson

Dutton. 307 pp. $25.95

Diane Johnson is a true woman of letters. She has written more than a dozen books, all respectfully reviewed, and won major honors. While building a reputation as a mistress of elegant, intricate fiction, she has for decades written perceptive and sometimes acerbic critical essays for the New York Review of Books, as well as the screenplay for "The Shining," the horrific Stanley Kubrick movie based on Stephen King's novel. Johnson is a multi-talented wordsmith.

Through it all she has been a committed Francophile, who lives half of the year in Paris. Over a six-year span -- 1997 to 2003 -- with a trio of accomplished and witty novels, Le Divorce, Le Mariage and L'Affaire, she cornered the market on Franco-American fiction. Her sophisticated and somewhat condescending French characters and down-home American visitors assess one another in what the San Francisco Chronicle aptly called "an endless dance of profound incompatibility."

She now turns her sights on Morocco, where France has exercised considerable cultural and political influence since the beginning of the 20th century. Lulu in Marrakech places Johnson's eponymous heroine, a freelance CIA operative, code-named "Bearer Angel," in one of Morocco's most mysterious and glamorous cities. Working under the pseudonym "Lulu Sawyer" (we never find out her real name), Lulu must collect information on any acquaintances who might be funding terrorists plotting attacks, training suicide bombers or compensating their bereaved families. Her CIA boss tells her to discover "who are the bankers," because "huge sums of money change hands in the souk, intended for jihad, never going near a bank." It then occurs to her that she has no idea how to accomplish such a dangerous and delicate mission.

Lulu is a well-educated, reasonably attractive, youngish American woman who appears to be paying a prolonged visit to her lover, a stiff-necked Englishman named Ian Drumm. Lulu met Ian the previous year in Kosovo, where they were both working with civil war refugees. Happily for this underpaid government secret agent, her boyfriend now lives in a gated villa complete with verdant garden, swimming pool and multi-cultural houseguests. Ian, the son of an affluent British Lord, has industrial and real estate investments in Morocco -- what exactly they are is never quite clear.

Lulu's cover is that she's doing research into illiteracy amongst Muslim women, who appear to live in a society with an almost impenetrable veil -- cultural and literal -- around their daily lives and ideas. The power of the veil surprises Lulu. After all, she says to herself, it is just a piece of cloth: "With nuns, no one thought about the veil, and now it was a principal article in dealing with vast political questions, such as Turkey joining the European Union."

She also worries that she is not supplying her CIA handler with dramatic enough information and wonders if she'll ever find a card-carrying terrorist. Perhaps, she thinks, it would be easier just to marry Ian and retire from the secret-agent business. Meanwhile, she makes covert phone calls to her CIA contact from hotel lobbies and sets up a lending library, a project that "tallied nicely with my clandestine interests, since it turned out that a lot of intrigue was required -- asking people who were going to Paris or London to smuggle books back, for instance."

Johnson lays out the life of the privileged foreigners and the watchful Moroccans in a fluent, wry, sometimes very funny style in the grand tradition of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, who peopled their novels with laconic British colonials savoring the heat and hedonism of the British Empire. She catches every nuance of life in Marrakech. A pair of gay British men keep a tea shop; a French Muslim woman, fleeing the threat of an honor killing, works as a nanny; an American-educated Saudi-Arabian struggles with her arranged marriage; Col. Barka, a mysterious Moroccan colonel who is or is not working for the French or perhaps the Americans, befriends Lulu. All move seamlessly in and out of the plot. Johnson nails the fiber and oddity of this tightly wound society of ex-patriots -- the majority French and British -- as Lulu makes well-intentioned but mostly unsuccessful attempts to befriend "real" Moroccans. She finds that "the Europeans and the Moroccans were each afflicted with an eye disease that prevented them from seeing each other -- it was the perennial eye infection of colonialism."

Initially, not much happens in the leisured life of the expatriates, except that Lulu worries about her relationship with Ian, and fellow houseguest Posy gets more and more pregnant, until suddenly events begin to unravel. Lulu finds herself involved in bomb attacks, violence and even murder. A pretty tall order for even a le Carré-caliber spy, and Lulu doesn't exactly see herself as 007. "I saw that I wasn't going to be good at this kind of illegal, risky activity in my chosen profession. It was too late for me, I lacked the anarchic core. . . . I was too goody-two-shoes."

Johnson is often a wonderful writer. Her characters and their setting have life, sounds and smells. Their conversations reveal much more than the characters themselves realize. But the foundations, the premises on which this story is built, are shaky. There is a sense of something missing, even in the midst of graphic descriptions of Marrakesh and its residents. The spy craft with scraps of paper and secret passwords feels more like a tale from the 1950s. Even in this fictional world, it's hard to believe that a somewhat ditzy and not that well-informed woman would be recruited by a U.S. espionage agency. She makes mistakes and takes risks that in real life would have blown her cover to smithereens. The novel has a curiously anticlimactic conclusion, too, almost as if the author suddenly tired of her story. Perhaps a double-agent story involving post-9/11 al-Qaeda-style terrorists is just too grim to lend itself comfortably to elegant and witty fiction. ·

Brigitte Weeks is a former editor of Book World.

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