No,” I wearily repeat, “the spy novel did not lose its raison d'être when the Cold War ended.” In fact, the genre is in rude good health, as evidenced by the wild variety of fiction that gets published under that rubric. This week, just a few days before the official release of John le Carré’s posthumous Silverview, the venerable house of W. W. Norton published an uncommonly gripping first novel by a former CIA analyst, David McCloskey’s Damascus Station. Set in the “early years of the Syrian uprising” (that is to say, during Barack Obama’s second term, though he is referred to simply as “the President”), Damascus Station combines an insider’s account of tradecraft—detailed enough to satisfy the most demanding geeks—with compassion for the Syrian people, outrage at the Assad regime, and an up-to-the-minute old-fashioned love story. There is plenty of black humor, too, and a lot of torture, killing, and such (not quite at Gray Man levels—I dropped out partway through the first book in Mark Greaney’s highly successful series—but visceral). And there are genuine moral dilemmas of the kind that can be found in the best tales of espionage.
Sam Joseph, the CIA case officer at the center of the story, is a wonderfully plausible hero; his Syrian “asset,” Mariam, with whom he unwisely but understandably falls in love, is perhaps a bit too close to fantasy but very appealing nonetheless. The range of Syrian characters is as capacious as that of the various CIA colleagues, superiors, and so on with whom Sam interacts. (The Damascus station chief, full name Artemis Aphrodite Procter, is such an insanely juicy character, she just might get McCloskey a movie deal.)
Here’s Sam in Paris, about to meet Mariam in person for the first time at “a palatial building a few blocks from the Foreign Ministry building at the Quai d’Orsay”:
The room was decorated in the style of a corporatist cocktail party: cavernous, wood-paneled, chandeliered, two bars, and a table for hors d’oeuvres. Sam foraged a small plate of spiced chicken and sidled up to one of the high-tops, alone, to take the room’s pulse. One chicken skewer in, he saw that nations were clumped together, mostly speaking with themselves. He fiddled with his tie.
The unobtrusive excellence of this passage, in its rhythm and diction, is characteristic of the novel. It sets up the next paragraph, when Sam spots Mariam; instead of artificial highlighting, we get a wonderfully quotidian transition (“one chicken skewer in”) to their first encounter.
As I recounted a decade ago in the pages of Books & Culture,
When I was about 15, I read Len Deighton's novel The IPCRESS File (the movie, memorably starring Michael Caine, came a couple of years later). I found the book absolutely intoxicating, and a lot of that exhilarating effect—though I couldn't have articulated it at the time—had to do with the way the sentences worked, and the spaces that Deighton left in the narrative for the reader to fill in (or not: when I first read the book, I didn't get everything).
Around that time, though I didn't mention it to anyone else, even in our very close family (my mother, my grandmother, my younger brother, and myself), I resolved that I was going to be a spy, an ambition (if it merits that label) I carried into college.
That seems utterly preposterous now—in fact, I wasn’t at all cut out for espionage, to put it mildly!—but there was something about the doubleness of the role, the twistiness of it, that accorded with my deep sense (which I couldn’t have articulated at the time) of the twistiness of our consciousness, something I felt explicitly for the first time at age fifteen when reading Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground in Constance Garnett’s translation. In a very real sense, we are all double or triple agents—such are the consequences of the Fall—and it is this condition that gives the best “spy fiction” such resonance. I am already looking forward to David McCloskey’s next book.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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