By Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 20, 2009
By Stephen L. Carter
Knopf. 355 pp. $25.95
Jericho Ainsley, once the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is dying of cancer in his well-fortified mountaintop home in Colorado. Rebecca (Beck) DeForde, who was his mistress 15 years earlier, when she was 19 and he was in his 50s, is summoned to his bedside. She is greeted by his two daughters: a Hollywood producer who hates her and a nun who purports to be her friend. They warn that the cancer has spread to their father's brain and that, despite moments of lucidity, he is mad. Jericho himself urges her to flee because an unidentified "they" will try to kill her and his daughters, too. But he also predicts that his close friend and CIA associate Dak Agadakos "is coming to the house to make me tell him certain things. After that, he plans to kill me."
Thus begins Stephen L. Carter's "Jericho's Fall," an odd but readable mixture of spy thriller, literary novel and haunted-house mystery. In an author's note, Carter declares that the book's "only purpose is entertainment," and he provides plenty of that. When the book fails, it is because the author, who is a professor of law at Yale, tries too hard to entertain us. Even for a novel about a Machiavellian, possibly mad, ex-CIA director, this novel contains an alarming number of unsolved, probably unsolvable mysteries.
Beck, our heroine, remains calm in the face of her ex-lover's warnings of violence: "Maybe Jericho was mad, maybe he was sane. Either way, he remained the same schemer he had always been, seeing the world as a series of conspiracies, to be defeated by counterconspiracies."
Still, she is shaken when, after she goes for a morning run, she finds a newly killed, headless dog in the driveway. And that is only the first of many mysterious happenings. Cellphones and computers malfunction. The lights go out. Helicopters circle overhead, and mysterious strangers keep turning up. Two minor characters die suspiciously. The Ainsley daughter who is a nun turns out to have once been an interrogator for the CIA. The local sheriff is strangely hostile to Beck, although one of his deputies offers her not only protection but romance.
It becomes clear that someone wants to kill Jericho, but it's not clear who or why. One possibility is that he has arranged for the release, after his death, of state secrets that would threaten old colleagues or even national security. Another is that he will reveal the truth about a Wall Street scandal in which an old CIA associate may have stolen billions of dollars. There are hints that it's the CIA itself, or some other government agency, that wants Jericho silenced. Beck, although determined to help Jericho, is increasingly aware that he may be using her for his own selfish ends and that she has no idea who is her friend and who her foe.
Jericho remains unknowable, although Carter uses him to drop bits of CIA lore. At one point he says, on the subject of hired assassins: "We used to have a saying around the Agency. About who makes the best assassin. We said you need somebody crazy enough to pull the trigger, but sane enough not to miss."
To an extent, Carter is basing his fiction on fact. He writes in his author's note, "The problem of mental illness among intelligence professionals is often said to be endemic." He adds, after citing several examples, "The longest shadow, however, is cast by James Jesus Angleton, whose counterintelligence work at the Agency from the sixties through the mid-seventies was clouded by a growing paranoia that tore the intelligence community apart." Angleton and the fictional Jericho Ainsley may share paranoia, but they are otherwise dissimilar: Jericho is presented as rich, aristocratic ("One of his ancestors had a traffic circle named for him in Washington"), charming and handsome -- not terms that suggest Angleton.
"Jericho's Fall" builds toward an exciting ending when helicopters land, shots are fired, bombs go off, betrayals multiply, secrets are revealed, unexpected figures turn up, and the body count mounts steadily. It's an all-out, wham-bang climax that struck me as too exciting. Chapter after chapter ends, like the Saturday-afternoon serials of yore, with some new, often artificial climax. Beck keeps reminding herself that she must survive for the sake of her daughter (whose father may or may not be Jericho). It's all a bit much.
Carter writes graceful prose, and he understands the mechanics of suspenseful storytelling, but he overdoes it here. I'm not sure that the story of an insane CIA director lends itself to the pure entertainment that Carter set out to write. A more serious novel might examine the mental health of hard-pressed intelligence officials -- preferably in Langley, not on a Colorado mountaintop -- but this action thriller isn't it.
Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.