Charles McCarry. The Mulberry Bush. USA: The Mysterious Press/Grove Publishers, 2015.
Incomprehensible. A tale of spies so convoluted I can barely attempt to describe it. A young man, the first-person narrator, becomes a very successful counter-terrorist after joining "Headquarters," an euphemism for the CIA or an even more obscure agency. We never learn his name but these spies are accustomed to multiple aliases and it doesn't affect the story. He secretly plans to turn the tables on his superiors in revenge for his father's disgrace in the same service. Meeting (falling in love with) a gorgeous Argentinian porteňa with an equal vengeance motive assists his opportunity. Or does it?
The back story of his father's fall from grace takes a fair amount of time with no action and little dialogue. Probably I went sleepily off the rails there as I failed to grasp the significance ... increasing my DUH? moments. The intricacies of today's espionage "tradecraft" are mind-boggling. I love locale. You know I love locale. There's some of that in this. But 100% challenging for even the most advanced spy-thriller fan.
Word: anthropoid = (adj.) human-like in form
What man had devised, man could circumvent. (34)
Washington was full of people who made good money for achieving results that could not be measured and that they couldn't talk about. (35)
Not for the first or the last time, I wondered where this overwhelming love for a man I hardly knew until our last hour together had come from and how it had become the driving force in my life. (84)
A wave of anxiety broke over me. I saw myself signing the contract, smelled the ink, heard the scratch of the pen. Good God, what had I done in the grip of exaltation? I didn't really know. Had I signed up with Headquarters, as I had believed, and thereby hammered the first nail into the coffin I planned to build for it, or had I walked into a trap from which I could never escape?
His boss, Amzi:
The first words out of his mouth were, "Are we any the wiser?"
He pointed at me. "You first."
I said, "Not me."
"Any change in your gut?"
"No. But I say again, Boris isn't stupid enough to give us reason to doubt his good faith at the very outset of this operation. It's not gold, but it's genuine dross."
Amzi said, "I'm staggered by your eloquence. Tom?"
"I second the eloquence."
"So what to do?"
Tom remained silent. I followed his example. Amzi looked from face to face. He said, "You're here to help with the thinking. So help." (160)
Nelson DeMille. The Panther. USA: Vision, 2012.
Almost 800 pages; this what they mean by BLOCKBUSTER. At least four different U.S. intelligence services are involved including the Anti-Terrorist Task Force with our hero John Corey of the glib and satirical remarks relating the events. Luckily we don't have to live with him as wife Kate (of the CIA) does. They are both chosen for a mission to capture Al-Qaeda's "the Panther" in Yemen, where two-thirds of the story takes place circa 2004. Where, you ask? Well, it's on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Fabled land of Noah's ark in the heart of Islam but a very troubled area with extremely complicated, divided loyalties. And oil. Regional rebels fight the official but corrupt government, the army scarcely works, the Bedouin tribes are more allied with the Saudis, Americans are not wanted (but they have an embassy in the capital, Sana'a), and fundamentalist Al-Qaeda is moving in.
For anyone interested in the Middle East, this is rich in history and politics, reading like a travelogue. It also exposes serious duplicity on several levels in the fight against terrorism. The intensity is balanced by Corey's non-P.C. humour, often funny but just as often racist. It's meant to convey a certain American/western mentality that paints all Arabs with one brush. So, mixed feelings in this reader. Working in a team of five agents, Corey and Kate are planted as reluctant bait, aware that jihadists are not the only threat they may face. Spies and diplomats can invent intricate rationales for betrayal. Brilliance from DeMille.
Tom and I did a good, firm handshake, and Kate got a hug, which in a Federal building is sexual assault. (114)
But we'd already been lied to, and lies are like cockroaches―if you see one, there are more. (188)
Today being Sunday, and thinking about Noah, Shem, Sana'a, and all that, I asked, "After God sent the Flood to cleanse the earth of the sinful and the wicked, do you think he was pissed off that the people who repopulated the earth got it so wrong?" (226)
I myself display impressively bad judgment on occasion, but I always temper that with acts of irrational risk taking. (238)
In this world, getting caught in a lie meant you needed a bigger and better lie, or at least a nice gift for the guy who caught you in a lie. (479-80)
The desert at night has a stark beauty, an otherworldly feeling that somehow changes your mood and your perception of reality. (539)
So the first Federally funded Anti-Terrorist Task Force was formed here in New York, made up of ten FBI agents and ten NYPD detectives. Now we have a lot more people than that. Also, we've added a few CIA officers, plus people from other Federal and State law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The actual number is classified, and if someone asks me how many people work here, I say, "About half."
The New York Anti-Terrorist Task Force worked well, and prior to September 11, 2001, there were about thirty-five other anti-terrorist task forces across the country. Now, post 9/11, there are over a hundred nationwide. A sign of the times. (19)
Enemies and friends:
Buck continued, "Al Qaeda in Yemen, like us in Yemen, are small in numbers. They have perhaps four or five hundred hard-core members. But they also have thousands of sympathizers and active supporters, including, as I said, inside the PSO, and also inside the army, the police, and probably the government."
I inquired, "How many sympathizers and supporters do we have in Yemen?"
"Two," replied Buck. "The lady who runs the craft shop and the man who cuts my hair―and I'm not sure about him."
Good one, Buck. (188-9)
Meeting embassy personnel:
Well, Colonel Kent reminded me a little of the general in Dr. Strangelove, but I didn't want to share this thought with Ed Peters. I mean, I had no idea what the interpersonal relationships were here, or who thought who was a loon, or who was jockeying for position. As I said, everyone here seemed a little nuts to me, and my short-term goal was to get out of this embassy, find The Panther, whack him, and go home. (295)
Håkan Nesser. Hour of the Wolf. USA: Pantheon Books (1999, translation 2012).
A Scandinavian noir author previously unknown to me, whose novel is an example of how one sinister thing leads to another after an accidental life-changing event. At first we don't know who the man is who kills a teenager while drunk driving and leaves the scene. But someone saw him and knows him. And blackmails him. More deaths follow, including the son of the chief inspector (always thus italicized) Van Veeteren of the police force in fictitious Maarden, Sweden. Half a dozen detectives doggedly work at unravelling connections in an apparently hopeless case. Thankfully, no particularly twisted psyche or gore here. The hour of the wolf is just before dawn, the awaking from bad dreams.
Right from the opening scene, all dialogue seems stiff. The characters (mainly police) had little real-life warmth for me, despite peeks into their personal lives and bits of humour. Clearly they have collaborated before in Nesser's novels without context or exposition here. Plenty of mental agonizing goes on but it barely resonates. The original, elusive criminal suddenly finds a great love relationship, begging plausibility why the woman was attracted to a man so unrevealingly wooden. The prose is fairly pedestrian and I doubt it's due to the translation. I'll likely not look for Nesser again.
One-liner: A Van Gogh reproduction hung on one wall, suggesting a lack of interest in art. (241)
"Why did you marry him in the first place?"
"I don't know."
"Marry me instead."
It slipped out before he could stop himself, but he realized immediately that he actually meant it.
"Wow," she said, and burst out laughing. "We've been together a couple of times, and at long last you ask me to marry you. Shouldn't we go home and have a bite to eat first, as we'd planned to do?"
He thought it over.
"I suppose so," he said. "Yes, you're right. (31)
Death of his son:
"I don't have the strength to talk about it anymore," said Van Veeteren. "I can't see the point of wrapping it up in a mass of words. Forgive me if I say nothing. I'm very grateful that you are here. Eternally grateful."
"I know," said Ulrike Fremdli. "No, it's not about words. It's not about you and me at all. Shall we go back to bed for a while?"
"I wish it were me instead."
"It's futile, thinking like that."
"I know. Futility is the playing field of desire."
He emptied his cup and followed her into the bedroom. (70-1)
A day in the life:
The sun seemed to be surprised, almost embarrassed at having to display itself in all its somewhat faded nudity. Van Veeteren phone Ulrike Fremdli at work, was informed that she would be finished by lunchtime, and suggested a car trip to the seaside. They hadn't seen the sea for quite some time. She accepted straightaway: he could hear from her voice that she was both surprised and pleased, and he reminded himself that he loved her. Then he reminded her as well.
The living must look after one another, he thought. The worst possible outcome is to die without having lived. (200)