The Prisoner, by Alex Berenson****

theprisoner Berenson has written a whole series of espionage thrillers featuring John Wells, a CIA operative fighting al Qaeda. I was unaware of this when I requested a DRC from Net Galley and Putnam Penguin, but I find it stands up quite nicely as a stand-alone novel. Would I have enjoyed it even more if I’d read the others first? We will never know.  However, if you’d like to read this tightly woven thriller either in sequence or singly, it will be available January 31, 2017.

To enjoy an espionage thriller, one has to buy the premise, namely that the CIA is a heroic organization, or at least has a segment of good guys that are fighting terrorism to keep innocent civilians safe. This is a premise I buy cheerfully for the sake of a good yarn; I do it when I read crime fiction in which the cops are morally righteous, or at least more good than bad, so why not here. In exchange, I got to enjoy an intense, interesting thriller that is different from a lot of the other fiction I read, and novelty is a meaningful selling point when one spends several hours daily with one’s nose in a book.

This is a literate read. In a world of dumbed-down fiction that plays to the lowest common denominator, I have come to value writers that have a strong vocabulary and aren’t afraid to use it. I also learned some things about the Middle East and how the USA operates there, including a few new specialized terms and some information about the cultures featured in that part of the world. Of course, this is fiction and it could also be true that Berenson made it all up, but his past includes work as a war correspondent in Iraq, and so perhaps this is what gives the setting its authenticity.

Our premise is that there is a mole at a high level inside of the CIA. John Wells has been feeling the itch to travel, impatient with his wife’s demand for more family time and suffocated by the dull sameness of everyday life in the States. He volunteers to return to the Mid-East and pose as an al Qaeda recruit so that he can be tossed into a Bulgarian prison and cozy up to the high-up operative that is interned there.

I blanched slightly at this; I have read a couple of former CIA employees’ memoirs, and I had to swallow hard to pretend that this guy would actually do this thing. But when we read thrillers, whether it’s crime, mystery, or a spy story, we don’t really want to read about tedium and paper pushing; we want excitement. Once I bought the premise, I was wedded to the narrative.

The other key characters here are Shafer, the CIA officer Wells reports to and who is also hunting for the mole; and the mole, whose name I can’t tell you without ruining the book.At first I thought I was seeing shallow characterization, but Wells’ character is developed in a way that is so subtle that the reader may not realize it’s occurred. Gradually we come to know who Wells is, how he thinks, how he will respond. On the other hand, our mole is a loser and remains a caricature throughout.

Every significant character here is male, but from what little I know, that’s consistent with the CIA, especially among the highest officers, a glass ceiling that’s hard to crack, so Berenson is merely reflecting US intelligence as it actually is.

The plot’s arc is a little different than one might usually expect.  The hook at the start is arresting, and I expected it to perhaps ratchet up, up, up from there. Instead, the pace flagged once we were about 15 percent of the way in, and then gradually began to ascend again. By the time I was 70 percent of the way in, I understood that the next time I picked it up, I would have to finish it.

When we hit the climax, set in France, I threw off the quilt and sat up. The pulse-pounding denouement was inconsistent with lying supine and I read the last 15 percent of the book sitting up and leaning forward.

This story is guaranteed to spike your adrenaline and chase away the winter blahs. Recommended to those that enjoy espionage thrillers.

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