The Increment: A Novel
David Ignatius is a true beltway insider. He writes for the Washington Post and he is a regular guest on Sunday morning talk show. However, unlike most beltway reporters, when he turns his hand to fiction, he can write a better than average spy thriller.
By far Ignatius’ best book is Body of Lies, but Increment isn’t too shabby either.
Shuttling between machinations within the C.I.A. and goings on in Iran, it is an entertaining ride. Ignatius knows the Middle East well, having covered it for number of years and his details about life in Iran ring true, but this book is at its best in describing the personalities and politics which play out within the American espionage and national security community. Though this book has its fair share of action, it is the meetings and deals brokered and broken which resonate. On the spy writer spectrum, Ignatius falls on the LeCarre side of things, his hero’s are flawed, but often idealistic and the government for which he works is at time incompetent. But that is what real life espionage is like, though I doubt it often hold as much excited as Ignatius generates in the final chapters of this book.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
One of many, many book reviews I wrote for a livejournal account long, long ago.
The Secret History of the CIA
If you want a trashy, gossipy, book full of stories of drunks and mistresses and bat-shit crazy people in charge of our nation’s espionage, then this is your book. It’s a one sided tale, for sure, and that side is of those with nothing good to say about the C.I.A.. It trashes the famous “Berlin Base” CIA operation, defends James Angelton and makes a case for the CIA being a basically inept organization that lost out big to the Russians during the Cold War. It is also not the most reliable book I have ever read.
Trento spends a bunch of time hinting that the Agency was involved in the assassination of JFK and a bunch more time questioning the apparent suicides of a number of agents. I find these segments of the books more than a little doubtful. The book is basically a diversion and should be taken with a couple of grains of salt, and is not a particularly reliable history of the CIA. Still, it’s a fast read, and nicely diverting if espionage is your thing (and it is among my many things). Not to be taken too seriously and really, in hind sight, not recommended.
A version of this review originally appeared on a now long defunct livejournal account.
The Tailor of Panama
John Le Carre
Le Carre, is in my opinion, the best espionage novelist of all time. If you’re fan of the genre, you’ve probably read at least some of his books. If not, you should.
The Tailor of Panama was the first book of his I read (I picked it up in an airport in Germany, which feels kind of right). In some ways, it’s an outlier. LeCarre’s masterpieces, the Smiley books, all take place mainly in the dank offices and dark alleys of cold war Europe. Here we’re in sunny Panama, but its still a world of mirrors and lies, deception by and to those we love, and understated implied, violence. LeCarre is still one of the best dialogue writers in the business. His ear for the way we speak is unparalleled.
In the Le Carre cannon the Tailor of Panama may be a minor work, but if you’re a fan of spy fiction it is certainly still a book worth reading.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism
Did you see Syriana? Well, Clooney’s character is allegedly based on Baer. If that’s true, it doesn’t seem to be a very accurate portrayal. What I got out of this book was not the story of a good solider who believed in democracy and was thwarted by dark forces in Washington. I got the story of a C.I.A. cowboy who most likely did more harm than good in the region and was thwarted in his attempts at further meddling in the Middle East by the incompetence of the suits at Langley.
This books isn’t Syriana. It’s a memoir of one operative’s time in the Middle East, and is more about bragging and settling scores than anything else.*
However, I still think it’s worth reading. Baer’s recollections of Lebanon during the civil war and his story of getting knifed at the end of his career in Washington is probably a pretty accurate story of how forces in Washington move against each other. This is a quick read, and worth it I think if you’re interested in the region or the C.I.A.
Recommended for the enthusiast
*and it is a little beyond me why Sy Hersh wrote the introduction, but whatever.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley Novels)
This is the one that made LeCarre’s name. It is a dark look at the horrible machinations of the KGB and MI6 at the height of the cold war, and the price that a number of foot soliders in that war played. This book sets the form that LeCarre will work to perfection until the collapse of the soviet union – damaged British agents versus evil communists with a fair amount of innocents on both sides getting taken down in the whole mess. It also introduces, though does not focus on, the man who would come to define LeCarre’s mid-career masterpieces, George Smiley.
If you pretend to be interested in the spy fiction genre, you need to read this. Even if you don’t, it’s a great read, you should check it out.
Recommended for the Enthusiast.