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Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson (hardcover, $25.95)

Alex Berenson deals with the issue of torturing political prisoners in his latest book in the John Wells series. Berenson, as usual, is masterful at imbuing his stories with such realism that our collective moral compass should whirl upon reading his books.

What came before this book: CIA agent John Wells was deep undercover with al Qaeda, was sent to the U.S. by al Qaeda to perform an act of sabotage, and managed to thwart a major incident. After having been embedded in Afghanistan for a long time and then returning to live in the U.S., Wells was thrown off balance by the difference in the cultures. He struggled to determine his identity. He began and ended a relationship with a fellow CIA agent, Jennifer Exley.

The Midnight House finds Wells alone, still confused about his country's involvement in the Middle East, and confused about his role in maintaining that involvement. He is a recognized war hero and still a CIA agent, but he's allocated to a fringe department and his hero status is fading.

The "Midnight House" is the nickname given to the deepest of the deep undercover holding pens for terrorist detainees. Before they are routed to Guantánamo, before Abu Ghraib, before Florida, this is where the most important captives are taken for initial "information gathering." Set apart from other prisons by the military's "don't-look-don't-tell" policy, freed from encumbering Geneva conventions and moral accountability, this is where prisoners go to be tortured. They leave without scars or physical residue of their experiences, but they are taken to the brink of tolerance and back many times. Until they break.

An anonymous letter is received by the CIA, alleging that there were 12 detainees at the Midnight House but that the information on two of them has been deleted. It's as though they had never been in custody. Soon members of the elite squad who maintained the house, and who have subsequently left the military or been given other duty, have begun to die, some obviously murdered and others dead under questionable circumstances. Wells and Ellis Shafer, his immediate superior, have been asked to determine who is killing the squad members and if it has anything to do with the missing two detainees. Because they have no jurisdiction in the U.S., they must circumnavigate the FBI, the NSA, and their own organization to determine what really happened.

A Faithful Spy, the first Wells book, was thoughtfully written and deeply thought-provoking. Wells had converted to Islam while undercover, and he had grown used to living as an al Qaeda fighter in the desert. Although we still can see the psychic pain that his affection for both the Eastern and Western cultures causes Wells in the subsequent books, The Ghost War and The Silent Man, Berenson is unable to attain the same high level of tension. In A Faithful Spy, we didn't know whether Wells would turn rogue or turn his back on his adopted comrades and fulfill his CIA mission, and that is what separated and elevated A Faithful Spy. The other books are good as spy books – tutorials in the politics of war – but they are not A Faithful Spy. The Midnight House, too, is not at the same level, but it's good to have Berenson keeping us mindful of what is going on in the Middle East.

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