The reviewer's latest novel is "Mordida Man."
An Army staff sergeant and former 4-H Club farm boy from Illinois is the unusual and possibly unique secret agent that the CIA runs against the KGB in this superior first novel that is set in Japan, Vietnam and Washington, and which grumbles, with apparent good reason, about the danger of the American and Soviet spy bureaucracies converging to the point where they are virtually indistinguishable.
The story is told for the most part by an aging, nameless, apparently omniscient super-grade in the CIA whose length of service must stretch back to "Wild Bill" Donovan and the World War II Office of Strategic Services. This ancient spook is privy even to the innermost thoughts of the principal protagonists by virtue of his lofty post in the agency's counterintelligence section, which gives him total access to all CIA records. Occasionally, Fuller will shift the narration, for no good reason that I could see, from omniscient first person to equally omniscient third person, but unless the reader is a stickler for a consistent point of view, it presents no problem.
In Tokyo in 1971, Staff Sgt. Jerry Birch is approached, rather clumsily, by a seedy European who would like Birch to supply him with some odds and ends of classified Army information. The sergeant dutifully reports the approach to his superiors, who promptly turn Birch over to Richard Harper of the CIA. Harper, we learn, is still recovering from a sticky time in Vietnam where most of his assets got butchered by either the Viet Cong, the South Vietnamese, or even the CIA itself. Harper is never quite sure which, and consequently his attitude is not at all what his superiors think it should be.
Harper considers himself to be a "positivist of espionage . . . a dull, plodding positivist" unlike some of his colleagues at Langley who worship the Mocking God--"the God of the lie, of disinformation, false appearances and doubt. This was the cult of possibility. And it was a disease. Its followers . . . were willing to imagine anything: that the latest Soviet Defector was a plant. That those who said he was genuine knew otherwise. That Langley itself was controlled at its highest levels by demons from the other side."
The bumbling KGB agent who first approached Staff Sgt. Birch bumbles again and is packed off home in disgrace. Meanwhile, Harper has discovered that the sergeant, farm boy or no, has a real talent for dissembling -- a talent so great that his fibs can fool even a lie detector.
So when the Soviets dispatch their Star Spy to Tokyo and he resumes contact with the sergeant, the CIA decides to use the sergeant in an elaborate disinformation scheme. The ploy is designed to convince the KGB that its super-secret code-sending apparatus has finally been cracked by Langley. It hasn't, alas, but if the Soviets think it has, they will surely abandon it.
All this goes more or less according to plan. Harper is given the credit and promoted. Birch is commended. And even the Soviet Super Spy is credited with having discovered that the code-sending apparatus has been compromised by the Americans.
It is here that a fairly interesting story takes a welcome and satisfying twist. All three of the principal protagonists wind up together in Washington in 1978--all four, actually, if the ancient counterintelligence spook at Langley is counted, which he must be, since he continues to tell much of the story.
Sgt. Birch, although out of the spy trade now for seven years or so, still looks back on it with yearning as the most exciting and fulfilling period of his life. Apparently, he decides to go back into the business for himself. The FBI (or the Sisters, as the CIA calls it) is tipped off. Harper is summoned as an observer. A block from the White House (much espionage seems to take place within a block or so of the White House for some reason), Sgt. Birch is observed stuffing some documents up a hotel drain pipe. A few minutes later the documents are recovered by none other than our old friend, the Soviet Master Spy. The sergeant is arrested. He implicates his former case officer, Harper. It's up to Harper to prove that the sergeant is lying -- no easy task since Harper himself has helped teach the sergeant how to be the world's best liar.
Fuller has written an intelligent, readable novel about two kinds of intrigue -- international and bureaucratic. He succeeds admirably at both tasks, although the internecine warfare that rages along the corridors at Langley seems no more bloody or vicious than that which echoes down the halls at Labor, Agriculture or State. Especially State.
Writing in a smooth, serviceable style, Fuller's characterization is more than adequate, as is his dialogue. However, I would have liked to have been told just a bit more about that ancient, faceless, nameless CIA super-grade. But the fact that I do want to know more is perhaps the clearest indication that Fuller knew exactly what he was about when he didn't tell me.