Like W.T. Tyler's previous two novels, "Rogue's March" is about an American involved in hazardous and/or clandestine employment overseas -- in this case an agent of the CIA posted to a nation in central Africa -- who finds his world-weary cynicism challenged by an increasingly intimate knowledge of the country where he works. Also like Tyler's previous novels, "The Man Who Lost the War" and "The Ants of God," this is an exceptionally thoughtful, skillful piece of work that rises considerably above the standard conventions of espionage or suspense fiction.
Tyler does know those conventions and he handles them with aplomb. His protagonist, Andy Reddish, is true to form: "He looked like a man already reconciled to whatever face or destiny the age of fifty would settle on him, a man who probably drank and smoked too much, whose ambition might have slipped some since his divorce, like his hairline and tennis game; but he was an intelligence officer, not a career diplomat, and for him appearances didn't count for much." We have met Reddish before, in countless other examples of the genre, just as we have met the beautiful French journalist with whom he falls in love; the urbane, old-school-tie American ambassador; the Belgian mercenary whose bloodthirstiness has complex roots; the various Africans, noble and otherwise, into whose country these outsiders have come.
At the most superficial level there are no surprises in "Rogue's March" and no significant departures from the norms of its genre. But Tyler is a serious writer who is interested in more important matters. "Rogue's March" is the story of a man who is awakened from moral indifference by events and other people, who rediscovers the value and rewards of deep commitment. It is also a contemplation of the manifold ways in which governments misunderstand and misinterpret each other, in particular the ways in which the nations of the developed world are blind to the realities in which the governments of the underdeveloped world must function.
In the words of a staffer at another embassy, Reddish is "the senior American diplomat north of the Zambezi, a virtual walking encyclopedia of all that's happened here." But that provides him with no ready explanations when, after the government of "national reconciliation" is overthrown by the military, the circumstances of the coup are revealed to have been exceedingly ambiguous and complicated. As Reddish circulates through the embassies and the countryside, trying to track down the origins of a large shipment of guns and ammunition that figured prominently in the uprising, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the African mystery -- and into commitments to others, particularly a charismatic leader named Masakita, a fascinating man whose "Marxism" turns out to have little to do with Moscow and much to do with Africa.
Africa is in fact the novel's dominant presence. Tyler describes it with love and candor, and utterly without sentimentality. In depicting Col. N'Sika, the leader of the coup, Tyler makes an eloquent statement of what I take to be his own view of Africa and the kind of leadership it requires:
". . . Whatever psychological taboos had been inflicted by decades of foreign rule, he had violated. Whatever quietism was implicit in his own tribal tradition, he had violated too. He had devastated the social fabric, smashed the polity that held each in place, and torn himself from the peaceful anonymity of a corrupt social order in order to declare himself its master. Now he had described the consequences. He had triumphed, but the agony of will remained. The nation was still an abstraction; there was no historical, legal, or social authority to which he or his majors might appeal if they failed, just the same barbarism that had awaited the old President. Even as village boys they'd known that one day they would die, but their triumph had made the extinction more absolute, the knowledge more dreadful, and the moment itself more terrifying."
Tyler offers no comfortable answer, no easy ways out; the note on which the novel closes is apt and satisfying, but a long distance from "happy" for Reddish or the Africans now more or less in charge of their own destinies. Like Graham Greene and John Le Carre', with whom he deserves to be compared if not ranked, Tyler is comfortable with small victories and large compromises. Reading his work, one feels very much in the real world.