In 2014 (which seems much longer than six years ago), I reviewed David Ignatius’s ninth novel, The Director. I also used the occasion to say a bit about the state of fictional espionage. (Was it moribund, or thriving? The latter, I said. Today my assessment would put it somewhere in between.) A high-powered journalist whose beat included the CIA for a while, Ignatius has enjoyed a parallel career as a writer of spy fiction (all of his novels but one have been in that genre). As I said in that 2014 review,
Ignatius brings his journalistic skills to the task. He has the humility of many first-rate reporters—the ability to ask endless questions without embarrassment—and he has cultivated a superb network. He knows a lot of people who know a lot of interesting things, and he gives his readers the pleasing sense of being on the inside. He’s a humane man, too. And, as his track record proves, he keeps people turning the pages.
But about the writing in the novel, sentence by sentence, and the editing of it (or rather the lack of competent editing), I was pretty harsh. I didn’t plan to read any more fiction by Ignatius, despite my love for the genre and my respect for his informed intelligence. I skipped his next book, 2017’s The Quantum Spy.
Even so, when I heard about Ignatius’s new novel, I was tempted—and I’m happy to report that it is largely free of the howlers that broke the fictional spell of The Director. (Please note: if there are errors having to do with technical or financial matters, they would slip right by me! But I suspect those bits have been thoroughly vetted.) No one could plausibly claim that Ignatius writes sentences as seductive as those of Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, or John le Carré, but in The Paladin he tells a compelling story that (among other things) gives the worn-out phrase “fake news” a new urgency.
The protagonist of The Paladin, Michael Dunne, is a CIA agent who is set up by his boss, the deputy director of operations at the agency’s Science and Technology division. In the first chapter, set in Alexandria, Virginia, in May 2017, Dunne decides—despite his lawyer’s urging to show “remorse and contrition” when he addresses the judge—to steadfastly maintain his innocence. As a result, he is sentenced to a year in prison; he has lost his job, his reputation, and his marriage. The bulk of the novel toggles between 2016, when the actions that lead to his imprisonment play out, and 2018, when, after his release from prison, Dunne seeks to find out how and why he was betrayed and make those responsible pay for what they did.
So The Paladin is in one respect a story of revenge in the classic tradition of The Count of Monte Cristo; as in many such tales, the avenger’s righteous quest is fraught not only with extreme danger but with moral peril as well. At the same time, the novel continues to explore themes that have preoccupied Ignatius in previous novels: the technology increasingly present in every aspect of our daily lives and the vulnerability that comes with it; the same trajectory in financial markets worldwide; the way in which spies as well as investors seek to gain an edge through artificial intelligence.
This will entice some readers; others will be thinking, “Not again!” You must trust me when I say that Ignatius’s handling of these themes will give many of you the same mixture of emotions I felt as I was reading The Paladin: on the one hand, a sense of seeing our present moment a bit more clearly than before; on the other hand, a foolish desire to escape somehow with my loved ones. (Foolish for me, at least, at age 72 and sorely lacking in the skills needed to go off the grid.) The Paladin is particularly deft in showing how a conspiracy can bring together a set of very strange bedfellows, ranging from self-styled “bandits” who want to disrupt the corrupt “world order,” whatever it takes—crackpots animated nonetheless by genuine idealism—to coldly manipulative string-pullers whose only goals are wealth and power and the satisfaction of exercising their superiority over lesser beings, those saps who prattle on about truth and justice.
The weakest character (that is, the most by-the-numbers) among the novel’s principal characters is Dunne’s wife, Alicia. She is sympathetically drawn but one-dimensional. On the plus side, there are several excellent supporting characters and vivid settings, including the region surrounding Pittsburgh, where—in living memory—steel was once king, and where David Ignatius (in those days of yore) established himself as a journalist to reckon with. There are also memorable excursions to Urbino and Taiwan. These satisfactions are not mere window-dressing; they add to the novel’s bedrock sense of the vicissitudes of time, the rise and fall of human aspirations, the fragility of that which is taken for granted. I am already looking forward to Ignatius’s next novel.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.
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