In 1974, at age 24, James Grady published “Six Days of the Condor,” his memorable tale of a young CIA agent running for his life from rogue elements of the spy agency. The novel, and the popular movie it became, embodied as well as any fiction of the era the disenchantment that millions felt after the horrors of Vietnam and Watergate. By the time the young Condor saw his lover gunned down on Capitol Hill and was transformed into an all-too-willing killer, the innocence of the Kennedy era was long gone, for him and for the multitudes who cheered his story.
Now, 41 years later, we have Grady’s wonderful “Last Days of the Condor,” the latest and perhaps last of his hero’s adventures. Like “Six Days,” this is essentially a chase novel, with the Condor again running from sinister forces within our government, but much else has changed. Though still not to be trusted, the government has evolved from the Watergate era to the present age of the national-security state. Grady’s talent has evolved, too. “Six Days” offered a fine, understated narrative, but now, after long experience with novels and screenplays, his style is far more loose, colorful, challenging and fun. Reading the novel, I sometimes thought of Orwell’s novel “1984,” sometimes of the Dylan song “Desolation Row.”
Condor has changed, too. After the events of the first novel, he returned to the CIA and became a legendary agent. (His original name is forgotten; his code name stuck.) But a few years back, surrounded by terrorists, he called in a drone strike on himself; his enemies perished and Condor survived, but his bosses had come to doubt his sanity, and he was banished to “the CIA’s secret insane asylum in Maine.”
As this novel opens, he has been released and is living on Capitol Hill. He has a make-work job at the Library of Congress and receives “home evaluation visits” from Homeland Security agents who make sure he’s behaving. One evening, he returns home and finds one of those agents dead in his living room. Condor knows that someone is out to frame him. He flees, and the chase begins.
Condor joins forces with one of his minders, an attractive young woman named Faye, a former CIA operative who is lethal with her Glock or her bare hands. Scores of shoot-to-kill agents are soon scouring the city for him, but Faye wants to bring him in alive. They team up with a woman Condor admires, tough-minded Merle, who at 53 is more age-appropriate for a hero who even on the run has time for romance.
Is romance appropriate in this context? Grady offers this cautionary exchange between Faye and her lover:
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Love isn’t lethal.”
“Sure it is.”
Grady finds time for a satirical look at the Homeland Security bureaucracy. Faye works at a “vast spy factory” on Wisconsin Avenue, one that “hums and crackles like Dr. Frankenstein’s Laboratory,” houses employees “of America’s sixteen officially admitted intelligence agencies” and invents such acronyms as PITS (Personnel In Transition Stations). As the absurdities pile up, Grady is clearly asking whether sanity can survive.
Condor and Faye’s efforts to evade their pursuers also enable Grady to paint a vivid picture of the city he has called home for years. He sets a gun battle in a station on the Red Line. As Condor and the women navigate Rock Creek Parkway, the author points out its charms. On the Hill, we glimpse Eastern Market, and Faye visits the venerable Tune Inn for a burger.
But Grady’s story is deadly serious. Watergate was a third-rate burglary, called forth by a paranoid president and executed by clowns. Here Grady confronts us with post-Patriot Act patriots who are blessed with a miraculous ability to transform illegality — torture, warrantless wiretapping, the highway robbery called “civil forfeiture” — into enlightened public policy. In Grady’s scenario, these people have also created a secret domestic spy agency with billions to spend and zero accountability, one that, in its haste to kill Condor, kills several innocent bystanders. Could such an agency exist in our government? Grady clearly thinks so.
When Condor confronts one of this agency’s leaders, once his lover, she shrugs off the collateral damage: “If we don’t do it, we’ll get it done to us.” When Faye protests the illegality to an even more senior official, he replies, “Illegal is a term of law decided by courts and presidential signatures.” So what are people like Condor and Faye to do? Fight a government out of control or stay and try to fix it? That’s the question Grady leaves us with in a novel that’s supremely entertaining and a sad, important look at the United States today.
Patrick Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
LAST DAYS OF THE CONDOR
By James Grady