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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Terrorist, by Peter Steiner (hardcover, $23.99)

This review contains spoilers for Le Crime and L'Assassin, Steiner's first two books in his series.

Peter Steiner has taken a darker turn since his days of drawing cartoons for The New Yorker. He is probably most famous for the cartoon depicting a dog typing at a computer. The dog says to his canine friend, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

The Terrorist deepens the tale begun in the almost-whimsical Le Crime, followed by the darker L'Assassin. Ex-patriate Louis Morgon has lived in a small French village for decades, ever since he was disgraced and driven from his job with the CIA. He has since been exonerated and his arch-nemesis, the man who framed him, is gone.

Louis paints, gardens, eats good food, and has good friends. He has established cordial relationships with his once-estranged son and daughter who live in the States. He has become involved in the life of Zaharia Lefort, the young Algerian boy from L'Assassin whose life Louis saved. Zaharia, now 16, has been accepted into a private school in the U.S. He will stay with Louis' daughter. All is well.

But all is not well. Louis still misses Solesme, his lover who died four years earlier. At the beginning of the book, Louis learns he may have cancer. Then the buried falsified "evidence" against Louis resurfaces. An over-eager CIA agent comes after Louis. And the whole thing starts over. Again. And, by golly, the right hand of the CIA doesn't know what the left hand is doing. While the over-eager agent is on the prowl, another agent, who knows Louis is innocent, wants Louis to help him gain access to al-Qaeda through Louis' old contacts. Louis does not want to resurrect that part of his life and declines. Then Zaharia is grabbed in the U.S. and tossed into a prison for suspected terrorists. Do you know the terrorist Louis Morgon? they ask. Yes, I know Louis, he answers, but not Louis Morgon, the terrorist. That is not the answer they want apparently, so they ask him the same question over and over and over.

In the middle of the muddle, Louis finds love again. Pauline is a Parisian doctor with a grown daughter who lives near Louis. She brings a future back into his life, and she becomes a good enough friend to provide aid and solace.

Plan A: It is up to Louis to figure out how to find an al-Qaeda "sleeper" to trade for Zaharia. Plan B: There is no Plan B.

Steiner takes us graphically into the world of political prisoners. The physical and mental games are excruciatingly described. And you know that Steiner has actually taken it easy on his readers. Zaharia is a charming character. He won readers over in L'Assassin. It's very hard to bear what happens to him in this book. But that's the point, and it's a point other authors make as well. What are we Americans willing to sacrifice of our humanity in this war against terror? Steiner takes a very definite political point of view. You may not agree with it, but you may still find The Terrorist compelling reading.

I enjoyed the buoyant Le Crime best of all. Once I got used the more serious direction of L'Assassin, I liked that as well. I had mixed feelings about this third book. Had I read this first, I probably would have enjoyed it more, because I wouldn't have had expectations. It certainly is more thought-provoking, and Steiner's slow-paced and deliberate writing style is still in evidence. It's almost as though he is writing a children's book. Sentences are short. Power is packed into brief descriptions. Action hinges on the turn of a single sentence. (If you dropped a paragraph from one of Tom Clancy's books in here, it would stick out like a New Jersey "guido" in a ballet.) Here's a "for instance." CIA spies are taught not to leave any evidence behind, so old habits die hard when Louis stays at a hotel:
When the maid at the Grand Alger came to clean Mr. Coburn's [his alias] room, she was surprised to find that he had not left anything in the room. No wrappers, no newspapers, no bus tickets, no papers of any kind. Nothing. Even the wastebasket was empty.
The whole book is deceptively plain. The iceberg, however, lurks below. You see it just before it smacks you between the eyes.

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