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‘Last Instructions’ echoes ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ — with a modern twist

You have to wonder if Nir Hezroni’s consistently unsettling novel “Last Instructions” — about a rogue former Israeli intelligence agent bent on revenge — isn’t a little bit autobiographical. Hezroni worked in military intelligence before launching a high-tech career in Tel Aviv. And his portrayal of the Mossad — he just calls it the “Organization” — reads as if some major score-settling is going on. Whatever the author’s motivation, his depiction of a spy agency run by bumbling, amoral fools isn’t going to be good for the brand.

Hezroni’s plot revisits and builds on the events of his debut thriller, “Three Envelopes.” It also contains echoes of Richard Condon’s Korean War-era classic, “The Manchurian Candidate,” as well as, more contemporarily, the hit movie “Get Out.” In all these cases, people’s brains are being messed with to make them behave in a certain ghastly way. Next to “Last Instructions,” though, “Get Out” might as well be “Gidget Goes Hawaiian.”

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The Bernoulli project, as the Organization calls it, is set in motion after a post-Soviet Union nuclear warhead in Kazakhstan goes missing and Israeli intelligence concludes that Iran has a bead on it. One of 12 scientists meeting in Switzerland knows where the nuke has been stashed, so the Organization, playing it safe, chooses to kill all 12. A group of assassins is programmed through “transformations” in their brain chemistry to carry out the hits. One of them, Agent 10483, is inadvertently — or maybe on purpose — assigned three targets.

The killer knows so much, however, about the Organization’s dirty tricks and lethal practices that he must be eliminated. So he is programmed to commit suicide after the murders, one of which involves incinerating everybody in a public park by hooking up a gasoline tanker truck to a sprinkler system. But 10483 unexpectedly survives his own suicide attempt, and he remains in a coma for nine years. When he finally wakes up and runs away, he is plenty ticked off.

Hezroni never makes clear how a man comatose that long could hop right out of bed and resume daily life — some vague stuff about maintaining muscle tone through involuntary movements rings false — nor is it easy to believe that anybody as psychotic as Gabriel Silverman, the agent’s real name, could have been hired by the Organization in the first place. One analyst speculates that someone wanted a nut case loose in the agency, but Hezroni never follows up on this notion, and the question is left dangling.

What makes “Last Instructions” worth reading is the believable meticulousness of the revenge-seeker’s planning, which includes detonating the nuclear warhead outside CIA headquarters in Virginia and making it look as if Israel was to blame for much of the District getting wiped off the map. Agent 10483 is a true evil genius, who keeps readers wondering what’s going to pop out of his head next. On a plane headed for Bolivia, where the nuke has been hidden, 10483 is seated behind a screaming baby. He tells us, “I can see the baby’s milk bottle through the gap between the seats in front of me. If he continues to cry, I’m going to get my hands on that bottle and mix a few crushed sleeping pills into the milk. I always have sleeping pills with me. I find they come in handy.”

While the crying baby thankfully survives, many others are less lucky. Dozens of innocent people, for instance, die when the agent seals the top floor of a Geneva apartment block and fills it with water, causing the entire building to collapse upon its unwary inhabitants.

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That’s clever, although not as fanciful as a project 10483 only fantasizes about: “Walk into a cosmetic surgery clinic while someone is undergoing liposuction, neutralize the doctor, and inject a liquid explosive with a tiny detonator. Could be used to bring down an aircraft.” More realistic is the steel cage 10483 constructs in the basement of his Tel Aviv house where he holds captive an Organization high official and the wife of another spy until a superhero-style rescue squad arrives and tries to save the day.

Does Washington get blown to smithereens? It’s worth making your way past the novel’s shakier elements to get to Hezroni’s big finish, a serving of dark comedy confirming that if this is how the defense establishment is going to keep us safe, we’re all in trouble.

Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson.

Read more:

39 Books of summer

By Nir Hezroni

Translated from the Hebrew by Steven Cohen

St. Martin’s. 346 pages. $26.99

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