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And so another night at work passes with a book.
On this occasion it was Alex Berenson's debut novel The Faithful Spy.
Following the still (sadly) topical theme of the American efforts to eradicate Al Qaeda and associated terrorist organisations we meet John Wells, a man who has done something we would not believe possible, he has infiltrated Qaeda to a fairly high level even meeting Bin Laden on more than one occasion. But because of his obvious need to retain his cover his contact with his case handler Jennifer Exley is infrequent in fact rarely more than once ever couple of years.
But after seeming to prove his loyalties in Afghanistan, and other places before, due to the natural cover given by his American birth his Qaeda masters send him back to the US. But what is his mission there? And can he prove to both the CIA and his Al Qaeda handler that he is trustworthy.
The central plot is well written and believable, it forces you to examine the central concepts of Qaeda's arguements that the West is corrupted and marries it to the Islamic faith without deamonising all followers of Islam - surprising given that every Muslim you meet in the book is a member of the terror organisation with the exception of Wells himself, who seems to very much lose his faith after he returns to the US, the reasons for which are neatly explained with the discovery that his Mom is dead and his ex wife wont allow him to see his young son.
Another slightly awkward plot device is the budding romance/infatuation between Wells and Exley, now since I myself am in a long distance relationship I can understand how absence really does make the heart grow fonder and from the beginnings of my own relationship can also accept that strong feelings can develop with little or no encouragement. But the plot asks you to accept these feelings lasting almost 10 years between meetings of the characters, sadly this time span is asking me to mindlessly accept too much.
Interestingly at one point through the book I found that I understood at least some of the feelings more radical Muslims have towards the west and it takes little imagination to see how these feelings would have been fueled and fanned by events in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.
Also the explainations of the organisation and how it has sourced its materials feels realistic, certainly I could believe that this is based up on truth although the author never claims it is so. And for me it is theis lack of claims which have made the book so enjoyable, unlike the Wolstencroft spy novel I read a few weeks ago this feels more likely.
Irritatingly for me it has also begun to change my views on book club selections since it is one of the Tesco Book Clubs selections, this also means it has an exclusively to Tesco edition containing an 'interview' style appenix with the author. It seems that Tesc's nbbook club is one I will be making selections from more frequently in furture since the other titles listed on the website are ones I have read and enjoyed.
Overall this is a highly thought provoking work which has restored somewhat my faith in the spy novel genre after my recent disapointment. The book is 420 pages long and the Tesco copy also has the 14 page interview and the first chapter from the forthcoming sequel. It cost £4 (or £3.50 as part of the 2 for £7 deal) and has been well worth the money.
Alex Berenson is a journalist for the New York Times. The Faithful Spy is his debut novel. It won the 2007 Edgar Award for Best First Novel ( the USAs leading prize for Crime Fiction) and was also shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger.
Berensons protagonist is CIA agent John Wells. Wells (known by his Muslim compatriots as Jalal) is the only agent to have ever infiltrated al Qaeda. For ten years he has been working undercover in Afghanistan in an operation known only to a couple of CIA big guns. Wells is fluent in Arabic and Pashtun, and has studied the Koran in depth. He also has the ability to beat up the bad guys without breaking out a sweat. These credentials made him perfect for the mission.
Due to the nature of his operation, Wells is not in regular contact with his CIA handler, Jennifer Exley. He is only able to pass on information when he initiates meetings with American Troops. Understandably, this is difficult to do without blowing his cover.
Wells convinces fellow members of the Taliban that he is truly committed to their cause. He is desperate to get closer to Bin Laden in order to gain valuable information. When one of Bin Ladens closest advisors, Khadri, asks Wells to take part in a mission in the USA, Wells sees this as his chance to uncover more of al Qaedas secrets.
Once Wells arrives in the USA he feels free for the first time in a long time, and makes the mistake of going to visit family before reporting to his CIA handler. When Exley discovers that Wells has returned without getting in touch, the senior CIA officials become very suspicious of his motives. They are concerned that Wells has become so involved with al Qaeda that he has switched loyalties. When they catch up on Wells, he fails to convince them that he is still very much on their side. The fact that he admits to converting to Islam leaves them no doubt that he is in Bin Ladens pocket.
The only person to believe in Wells, is his handler. There isnt much point to Exley in the story apart from the inevitable love interest between them. Despite the fact that they have only ever had a couple of very brief meetings in a ten year period, the reader is expected to believe that they are besotted with each other. I dont mind a bit of romance in a novel, as long as it is realistic and adds something to the story. In this case, it doesnt.
Wells decides that the CIA will only interfere and prevent him from linking up with Khadri. He escapes from custody to continue with his mission as he is sure that this is the only way he will prevent another attack on American soil. Khadri does not make this easy for him, as he does not truly believe that Wells is the real deal.
I did enjoy this novel, but to be honest, I found the whole idea of an American penetrating al Qaeda a bit unbelievable. By making Wells a Muslim, Berenson can not be accused of demonising Islam, even though all the other Muslims in the book are terrorists. He has attempted to show that terrorists twist the words of the Koran to justify their actions, but the characters are stereotypical nonetheless. The author has spent a great deal of time in Iraq, and this shows in his writing. The Faithful Spy is a good debut novel, but it lacks the pace and suspense that I expect in a good thriller and I found the plot to be entirely predictable. Berensons second novel featuring John Wells, The Ghost War, is due for release in March next year. It will be interesting to see how he develops the character and no doubt I will give it a read.
The Faithful Spy is available in Tesco for less than £4, and is one of the titles of the Tesco book club.