By William Saunderson-Meyer for the Sunday Times
The straightforward moral clarity of the James Bond era in British espionage fiction during the Cold War – “We good, They bad” – was relatively short-lived.
Writer Ian Fleming’s jingoistic triumphalism was soon overtaken by the remorseless relativity of the John le Carré school, which boiled down to a self-flagellating proclamation of “They bad, We worse”.
Hopelessly starry-eyed patriots that they tend to be, the Americans took longer to come round to a world that would not be simply rendered in black and white. But Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll and following the realisation – stunning to Americans of the “In God We Trust” generation – that there are limitations to US power, there has developed a more nuanced and cynical espionage/political thriller.
Tom Wood’s The Enemy centres on Victor, a former freelance assassin who has been recruited by the CIA. The idea is that he will provide them with an arm’s-length “credible deniability” for three overseas assassinations they want to carry out free of irksome political oversight by Congressional and Senate intelligence committees. With each assassination, however, it becomes apparent to Victor that crucial information is being leaked about his intentions, making him the target of other intelligence agencies, including Israel’s fearsomely efficient Mossad. While what follows is a skop, skiet en donder of epic proportions as Victor has to rely on his every skill to survive, The Enemy is thoughtfully plotted and draws inspiration from the reality of a US intelligence establishment that has come increasingly to rely on contract workers to do its dirty work.
Matthew Quirk’s The 500 draws its title from the widely held belief that 500 influential men and women in Washington wield the real power in the US. As with The Enemy, the novel depicts an American netherworld where private intelligence gathering and government intersect.
It is set in the corridors of power trod by the Davies Group, the nation’s most powerful political consulting and lobbying firm, which thinks of itself “less as a business and more as a secret society or shadow government”. The group’s newest associate is Mike Ford, a promising Harvard Law School graduate who has his eyes set firmly on making partner, with all this promises.
But despite his newly minted Ivy League degree, Ford is not the firm’s typical recruit drawn from the ranks of the private school and country club set. His dad was a conman and thief and Ford’s teenage years were dedicated to petty crime before a spell in the navy set him straight.
It transpires that it is Ford’s dodgy past that is the attraction for the Davies Group. What they need most in their endeavours to sway government and legislative opinion to suit their lobbyist clients, is someone who is willing to bend the rules. Ford is ideal, except that he has deep within him a stubborn streak of morality when it comes to the dirty side of politics.
Reviewers have drawn parallels between The 500 and John Grisham’s The Firm, where another young man takes a perfect job only to find that he is pitched face-to-face with threatening institutional evils. Whatever the origin of Quirk’s inspiration, he has written a first novel that crackles with energy and engaging characterisation.
Another outstanding debut novel is Chris Pavone’s The Expats, in which Kate Moore, choosing family life above work, retires as a CIA operative when her computer-specialist husband Dexter accepts a long-term assignment in Luxembourg.
After 15 years of high-adrenalin assignments, however, the world of kaffeeklatsch and children’s playgroups quickly palls: “She used to be a person who did things . life-and-death things. Now she was folding laundry.” When she meets an overly affable American couple, Julia and Bill Maclean, her distrustful CIA instincts are aroused.
Kate’s domestic stage is quickly subsumed into a world of layered treachery. Not only are the Macleans not quite who they pretend to be but Dexter, the husband she had assumed to be “straightforward, readable, dependable and nice”, is not either. And since Dexter is oblivious to the fact that his wife was previously a frontline agent whose culinary skills were outstripped by her assassination skills, Kate doesn’t know who to trust when the situation becomes dangerous.
This is a plot that spirals and swirls, doubling back on itself with bewildering speed and culminating in a stunning showdown. Pavone has written a superb espionage novel, as well as, en passant, an engrossing depiction of how the cumulative weight of deception and psychological isolation take a marriage to breaking point.
Books brought to you in association with Exclusives.co.za