It’s harder to find a good spy novel these days. I certainly don’t wish for the Cold War to re-surface, but novelists like John Le Carré, Graham Greene, and Adam Hall created sophisticated and challenging tales for their readers from this fertile ground. Recently, the international intrigue genre has been overrun by tales of religious, Nazi, technological, or financial conspiracies.
John Wells is an old fashioned CIA spy. He has gone deep into the world of al-Qaeda. He was not able to stop 9/11 or the London or Madrid bombings, and he and his agency begin to ask, what good is he then. His moment comes when al-Qaeda sends him back to the United States with an unknown mission that has the feel of something big.
The strength of Berenson’s writing is in the detail. His superb description of Wells in Afghanistan and Pakistan, living with the Taliban and pretending to be a faithful Muslim warrior in thrall to bin Laden, seems so realistic. His portrayal of Wells’s return after a decade underground to the United States and the culture shock he weathers to reenter American society, which seems, in comparison, to wallow in material and moral excess, violence, and waste, is thought-provoking. Lastly, Berenson’s depiction of how al-Qaeda could exist in this country in disguise is downright scary in its potential authenticity.
The main question throughout is: What has become of John Wells? We learn, along with Wells himself, how much he is a synthesis of two cultures, how he must redefine his motivation to continue as a spy, and what he has given up to remain a faithful spy.
The Ghost War (hardcover, $24.95) is the follow-up novel just released.