David Ignatius has been a respected journalist for the past 35 years, but now that I’ve discovered “The Director,” his latest spy novel, it’s clear to me that all this time he’s been doing the wrong job. A man of his age and talent ought to be every bit as famous as a lot of thriller writers with bigger names and egos, and half as much intelligence.
The hero of this gripping story is Graham Weber, a businessman who’s made a fortune from telecommunications. The president of the United States asks Weber to take over the “ghost hotel” that is the CIA, and, “flushed by the challenge” of attempting the impossible, Weber agrees. It seems that he has time on his hands, “and like many people who have succeeded in business, he wanted to be famous for something other than making money.”
He looks like an inspired choice to head an agency that has helped to squander the country’s moral authority with black ops, renditions, drone strikes and waterboarding. But Weber has been polishing the agency’s image for less than a week when a Swiss-German punk hacker walks into the American consulate in Hamburg (not as easy as it sounds) and insists that the CIA and all its support systems have been hacked. Then he disappears, leaving Weber with a big problem, very little time and a network of spies and bureaucrats who, in some cases, are keen to see him fall flat on his handsome, tanned face.
Weber’s gut decision to let James Morris, a young geek, run the resulting operation looks like the breath of fresh air that Langley needs. At least it does until Morris goes AWOL, leaving an almost invisible electronic exhaust that suggests he may be playing not just both sides but a sophisticated game that threatens to undermine the world economy.
I spotted but one error of fact: Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate is not, as stated, at the eastern end of Unter den Linden, but at the western end. Oh, and I do wish that when writing dialogue spoken by English characters, American writers would use the phrase “old boy” very sparingly or, better still, not at all. The thing is, old boy, we talk like this only when we’re characters in movies, and never when we’re talking to Yanks.
I’ve never met Ignatius — I’ve never met anyone at The Washington Post, for whom the man writes a column, and no one from the paper has asked me to be kind to this novel or go easy on it. I say that so you’ll know that I’m not rolling a log or exaggerating when I call this the best spy novel I’ve read since John le Carré’s “Smiley’s People,” way back in 1979.
God, is it really that long ago?
This is the kind of Smiley novel le Carré would probably write if he were 20 years younger, if he knew the CIA as well as he knows the British security services and — post Snowden and Manning — if he were switched on about computers and hacking. And I mean really switched on — like, he knows his Tor from his Wormhole.
Nor am I exaggerating when I say that I now intend to read everything that Ignatius has written. I already know the movie, starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, that was made of “Body of Lies.” It wasn’t a bad movie, but I’ve a shrewd idea that it will be totally eclipsed by the book. Small wonder that I’m told his novel “Agents of Innocence” is required reading for new recruits at Langley. I can’t answer for that book — at least not yet — but I strongly suggest you read “The Director.” It makes Tom Clancy look like an episode of “Get Smart.”
Kerr is a British author. His latest novel is “Prayer.”
By David Ignatius
Norton. 386 pp. $26.95