Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Amateur by Robert Littell: Thriller about the CIA being blackmailed by one of its own!

I must say that I have a great fondness for Robert Littell's books. This doesn't mean that these books are warm and fuzzy, far from it: they demand attention like the great and often complex thrillers that they are, while maintaining exceptional originality and the ability to surprise the reader, even this reader who has devoured seemingly the entire world of spy thrillers. Littell's outstanding writing, wry humor and unvarnished cynicism add a lot to the appeal. There is even more, however. Littell creates characters that are unique, but in wholly organic ways, with nothing forced or added just for show.

Some of the appealing subjects that recur in Littell's novels may be linked to his love of chess. In any event, they include cryptography and chaos theory, both of which appear as central parts of some novels. The books are never pedantic, however, and Littell shows us a lot about human nature and the way that the underworld of espionage often uses human nature as its currency.

I first heard the phrase, "Any thing worth doing is worth doing badly" rather incongruously in a research lab at England's Oxford University, in the late 1970s. At the very start of The Amateur, Littell uses this statement as an epigram that defines the amateur vs. the professional (the latter being one who is compelled to do everything well, at least everything that is worthwhile). The Amateur definitely delivers what it promises, a spy thriller from the amateur perspective, and woe betide any professionals who make the mistake of getting in this particular amateur's way.

The story begins with a terrorist invasion of a US embassy in Germany and the tragic shooting of one of the hostages. The young hostage was Sarah Diamond, the fiancee of one Charlie Heller, whose day job is devising unique codes and decoding messages for the CIA. Heller's night passion, other than Sarah, is searching for ciphers in Shakespeare's writing.

Heller is understandably crushed, and wants to know when the CIA is going after the terrorists to exact revenge. The answer is less than satisfactory: the CIA isn't going to take any action.

After trying normal channels, Heller reaches the limit of his patience, and literally takes matters into his own hands, which requires the dangerous scheme of blackmailing the CIA to turn him into a field agent. All of those secret messages he decoded turn out to be great blackmail material, compromising the highest CIA officials.

So, the race is on. While Heller is being trained and then sent behind the Iron Curtain to find the terrorists, the CIA rips apart his apartment, car and everything else they can find, looking for the stolen messages. Heller's mission is revenge. The CIA's mission is self-preservation: they want to destroy the incriminating information and then kill Heller on foreign soil, or, better yet, have a foreign intelligence agency do the job for them.

All along, Littell employs his trademark mix of humor, wit, action, word play and cynicism to great effect. Near the start, Heller is occupied with decoding messages from a dyslexic spy in Prague who can't use the codes properly. There is a stunning scene where Sarah's elderly father, a concentration camp survivor, watches CIA agents storm into his house, tear it apart and interrogate him: Mr. Diamond remarks that he isn't afraid because he has been through this kind of treatment before, when the Nazi's took his family to the camps. The American agents go blithely about their business, asserting that "this is different because it is a case of National Security," precisely echoing the very rationale used by the Nazi thugs 50 years earlier.

Littell really pumps up the volume once Heller crosses into Czechoslovakia. Multiple story lines emerge, they begin to intersect with violent results, and finally the stories converge in a stunningly deceitful and deadly manner. The collisions involve Heller, a Czech spymaster-Shakespearean scholar, the dyslexic Czech spy, the CIA and its agents, and, of course, the targeted terrorists. Revenge is a theme that unites several of the characters, from old Mr. Diamond to young Mr. Heller, and even the Eastern Block spymaster. Will their revenge be served hot, served cold, or not served at all?

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Reading list- upcoming reviews

Here are a few excellent books I've read recently that are in the process of being reviewed:

Blonde Faith by Walter Mosley
The Ultimate Good Luck by Richard Ford
The Amateur by Robert Littell

Robert Littell has been reviewed previously on this site (see here for three book reviews and also see a great interview by Karim Ali).

If you have any questions or recommendations, please leave a comment. Thanks!

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Hidden Assassins by Robert Wilson: terrorism and crime in Spain

A thriller and police procedural with international intrigue and espionage all included just as part of the story, The Hidden Assassins (THA) is Robert Wilson's third novel about Chief Inspector Javier Falcon, lead murder investigator for the historic city of Seville, which is located in Andalucia, southern Spain. The novels are intertwined, sharing many characters in addition to the Inspector himself. To understand the relationships that Falcon is embroiled in (and you will want to), the stories should be read in order of publication, starting with The Blind Man of Seville (TBMOS), followed by The Vanished Hands (TVH).

The beginning to this series, The Blind Man of Seville, is a tour de force, an astonishing novel of byzantine family history, pride, violence, jealousy, love, betrayal and "all the other departments." As I have previously mentioned, The Vanished Hands is very good, but pales somewhat in comparison to its predecessor. With The Hidden Assassins, however, Wilson has given us another masterpiece. This time, the story is both personal and global in scale, and it is very much a novel that reflects today's post 9/11 world. THA manages to reflect so many different aspects of the world that the story is a true gem.

After a brief interlude in London, The Hidden Assassins starts with the discovery of a body, but this is no ordinary discovery, even for a murder squad, because all distinguishing marks have been removed from the dead man by a variety of techniques that I'll leave to the imagination. The novel is propelled in a multitude of directions by this discovery, like the Universe after the Big Bang. Occasionally, we follow Falcon's thoughts backwards in time, to events familiar from the previous novels, which are revealed even more clearly now, before we can move forwards and try to catch up with the flood of investigative information needed to solve the present-day mystery.

Before long, the trajectories of the novel's various plots are deflected by another significant explosion, this time not metaphorical at all: a huge detonation completely destroys an apartment tower in a poor section of town, devastating families and putting the entire city on edge. A mosque in the basement of the tower block is the epicenter of the explosion, and this fuels public suspicion of the Islamic community. The Islamic population originally arrived in Seville in 711 AD, and flourished until King Ferdinand III expelled them in 1248. Even today, those years can be referred to as the Arab Occupation. The Jews were later expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. During The Hidden Assassins, talk of once again expelling the Islamic population begins to gain steam, especially with the poor, who are courted by xenophobic, nationalistic, right-wing political forces. This time around, it appears that the Jews are safe in Seville, at least for the moment, but Fascism is being embraced by some prominent Roman Catholic citizens, and, in addition to stirring up the crowds with tabloid propaganda, these minority extremists may have infiltrated as far as the National Intelligence Agencies themselves.

Falcon's investigators, who include a former nun, react with varying but significant degrees of distaste to the "need" for a simple story and an identifiable, preferably Islamic scapegoat. However, we can be sure of one thing: the police investigators want to identify all of the criminals and all of the victims with great specificity and detail, and then treat them accordingly. There will be no rush to judgment by these investigators, but will they move fast enough to satisfy a growing civil unrest? Will powerful forces in politics, the intelligence services and business gain the upper hand and control the outcome of the investigation?

To complicate things, the massive scale and terrorist nature of the bombing means that the police now have to contend with the appearance of two feuding Spanish National Security agencies who, at times, do as much to hinder as to help. Simultaneously, the city grows more restless and angry, with most of the anger reserved for the Islamic minority (and some for the police and government). Has the explosion possibly revealed an Islamist plot to "liberate" Andalucia and return the region to Islamic rule? This theory is popular in the tabloids, but it doesn't seem credible to the investigators.

Trying hard to keep an open mind, Falcon directs his team and the forensic investigators through the painstaking work of sorting through the rubble for clues, identities of the victims, and a time-line of events. Relentless in the face of a chaotic assemblage of information, Falcon manages to keep his focus on the facts in spite of political pressures and the stone walls that are constantly being erected by the security agencies.

Breakthroughs in the case can only occur in fits and starts, especially because, though Falcon's intuition tells him that the parallel murder and bombing investigations are linked, evidence of the links is sorely lacking. Unfortunately, this evidence is needed to create a path forward. However, things do begin to take shape around certain key events, like the suicide of a counter-terrorism agent and the discovery of a mysterious group that had the basement mosque under surveillance for some time. This group has intimate ties to pockets of the Roman Catholic community and to some major corporations. Oddly, these corporations don't hire women and seem to do all of their recruiting after prayers at church.

In addition to a grueling work schedule with grim deadlines, Javier Falcon has family problems to deal with and personal demons to struggle with: Falcon's ex-wife is now (unhappily) remarried to a prominent Judge; the woman Falcon loves refuses to see him; relationships become increasingly complex with Falcon's recently-discovered Islamic family in Morocco. All of these matters conspire against a decent night's sleep. However, the story's exceptional balance mirrors Falcon himself. In many ways, Falcon's respect and understanding of Islamic culture allow him to see through smoke screens and around corners, bending light through a multicultural prism to find the truth.

In a familiar role, the CIA makes brief appearances and doles out information according to its own interests and perceived needs, and this is a case where the American agency can and does help with vital intelligence. However, nothing comes for free, and Falcon's Moroccan family connections attract all of the spy agencies, who try to elicit Javier's help with under-cover work. In some cases, these agencies are spying on each other as much as on the nominal enemy, but such paranoia may turn out to be justified, especially if the actions of the right-wing Nationalist groups have become indistinguishable from the deeds of Islamist killers... indistinguishable without great forensic and investigative teams, anyway.

With all of these plot elements, a lesser writer would eventually have succumbed to stereotypes and stock solutions. However, the author Wilson and his man Falcon keep all of the balls in the air like master jugglers and refuse to settle for the cheap and easy solutions that the tabloids and growing rabble crave. Along the way, we meet vicious opportunists, cold-blooded killers, grief-stricken parents, genuine (if naive) politicians, corrupt would-be king makers, and men and women of great strength and outstanding character, more often in the poor Muslim and Catholic communities than in the upper echelons of society.

As the mysteries unravel under Falcon's guidance, new problems are revealed, and the suspense mounts: can the investigators identify, locate and thwart the next terrorist plot? Can any of the high-society Christian fascists be brought to justice? Can Javier Falcon survive his battle with the twin monsters of Christian and Islamic terrorism and find his way back to normalcy through the labyrinth of his frayed emotions?

The Hidden Assassins reward us with rich detail, panoramic vision, plenty of suspense, terrific pacing, a compelling, thrilling and horrifying set of story lines, and a view of the world that is, to my eyes, balanced from very many perspectives. In the end, the reader sees violent religious and political fanatics for what they are, regardless of their ethnic origins: common criminals who leave innocent victims dead and broken in terrorism's wake.

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