I discovered The Faithful Spy, by Alex Berenson, on a used bookstore shelf in Ithaca, New York. It caught my eye because it’s an espionage thriller, similar to my current work-in-progress. I picked it up not sure what to expect… but boy am I glad I did! The Faithful Spy blends a gripping narrative into real-world events, providing a brutal look at one of the most difficult issues of our times.
The book has a very interesting premise: John Wells, our main protagonist, works as an agent for the CIA and has infiltrated al-Qaeda. However, there are worries about whether he’s still loyal to the United States, or if he’s flipped and now works for the terrorists. His main contact, Jennifer Exley, believes that he still works for their side. Her faith wavers though in and out, as well as her attraction to him. Wells himself finds his country alien to him after so long away. Meanwhile, Khadri (a vital al-Qaeda operative) tests Wells’ loyalty, while plotting the next terrible strike against the US. It’s a race between many parties to stop the next major terror attack, and a constant question of discerning friend or foe.
A Rounded Perspective
One of my fears going into the book was that it would be incredibly jingoist. “America good! Bad guys hate us because bad!” However, Berenson puts in the effort to paint a comprehensive picture that I appreciated. He doesn’t portray the US as a shining city on a hill. It shows that injustice occurs, it details why terrorists radicalize, it shows how the actions of the United States have caused suffering.
That said, it never swings too far into the opposite direction either, granting moral equivalence to agents of terror. We understand their motivations, and may even feel sorry for a couple of them to an extent, but they still plan and perform terrible actions. Berenson keeps them as clear villains, and it’s satisfying to see our heroes make a successful against them.
In addition, The Faithful Spy makes an effort to avoid stereotyping. I can’t speak for all groups of course, but I appreciate that our main protagonist Wells himself is Muslim. Berenson takes the time to differentiate radical jihadi Islam from mainstream Islam. Iraqis team up with American forces in one scene to help raid a terrorist rendezvous. It all helps avoid the Islamophobic trap that the story could so easily fall into.
By maintaining this balance, Berenson manages to have the best of both worlds. His story has a strong foundation of realism and truthfulness. At the same time, he still has bad guys who we can root against. He accounts for human complexity while still defining a “good side” and “bad side”: peace and life versus chaos and death. Yet in the middle lurks a grey area, and the story grows most tense when our heroes have to venture into that grey area to reach and fight evil.
The Grey Area
The best parts of this story revolve around the choices that the characters have to make. It’s a constant theme throughout the whole text: what is worth sacrificing? Should Wells turn a blind eye to a smaller attack carried out by al-Qaeda if it means he’ll have the chance to stop something bigger? What lengths will Exley go to to get the intelligence she needs?
One of the most memorable chapters is also one of the more uncomfortable ones, in exactly the right way. A higher-up in al-Qaeda has been captured, and they need information. You can probably already tell that “enhanced interrogation” comes into play. We get several sides to this narrative. There’s the interrogator, who condemns the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and worries about his own sanity while also viewing his job as essential. Then there’s Exley, who labels the whole thing as torture and feels uncomfortable with it. Finally, there’s the man being tortured, and we get a description of what he’s going through.
The whole sequence highlights one of the most divisive conversations surrounding the War on Terror. Is torture ever acceptable? If so, when, and how do you keep it from being abused? If not, what ends up lost? Before reading the book I would have had an answer ready, but now I’m not so sure… which leads me to what I enjoy most about the book.
Thrilling and Enlightening
Because The Faithful Spy grounds itself so well, and because Berenson took the time to do so, I feel like I learned something. Not only about narrative writing though, I learned something about the War on Terror. I already knew it was a messy slog, but now I can see that, at least circa 2006, it’s so fractured and difficult.
All of this comes packaged in a very well-written thriller that leaves you guessing up until the very last few pages. Even when the major “gotcha” moment gets revealed, it still holds one more surprise to keep us on our toes. Our protagonists were quite likable, and overall I quite enjoyed this book. I’d definitely give this one a recommend!
Have you read The Faithful Spy? What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter!