The Quantum Spy, by David Ignatius*****

“America is a country where race matters. The more people say they are, what, color-blind, the more it is a lie.”

thequantumspyDavid Ignatius writes gripping spy fiction, and this is his best work.  The basis of this one is the longstanding intelligence war between the CIA and its Chinese counterpart; the story is fictional, but his careful research ensures that this could have happened.  Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Edelweiss and W.W. Norton and Company Publishers. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, November 7, 2017.

Harris Chang is Chinese-American, raised to respect the red, white and blue.  He works for the CIA, and has been sent to investigate a leak in a quantum research lab. As the USA and China struggle to achieve technological dominance, tensions rise. Chang wonders if he has been chosen to investigate based on his ethnicity, since he knows very little about China or even his own family tree; why yes he has. The Chinese expect to be able to turn him because of it, and over the course of time, his bosses begin to suspect that it’s happened.  Harris is loyal, and he chafes at the unfairness of his treatment, but is determined to succeed. After all, what could prove his loyalty more clearly than to perform above the standard to which most of the Agency’s employees are held?

The setting changes constantly as spies chase other spies all over the world, but the story takes place primarily in Arlington, Virginia and in Singapore. There are also some especially tense, intriguing scenes set in Mexico, and I love the side details about Trotsky’s house, which is now a museum.

Ignatius dumbs down nothing for anyone, and so the reader should have literacy skills that are sharp and ready. Don’t read this one after you take your sleeping pill. Trust me.

The story can be read—and mostly will be, I think—as an enjoyable bit of escapism. With current events so intense, we all need some of that, and it’s what I expected when I requested the DRC. But I find it much more rewarding because of the racial subtext. It’s an area that’s important to me, and at first my back was up when I saw hints of it without knowing what the writer’s intentions were. So many are astonishingly clueless, or worse, when it comes to this aspect of fiction. But as I saw where he was taking it, I had to completely reevaluate my opinion. I would love to be surprised in exactly this way more frequently.

The ending made me want to stand up and cheer.

Highly recommended to those that love strong thrillers, and even more so for those that also cherish civil rights in the USA.

 

The Expats, by Chris Pavone *****

theexpatsChris Pavone spins one fine espionage thriller. I was introduced to his work when I read a galley of The Accident, the white-knuckle suspense story that follows this one. I was sufficiently impressed that I checked to see what else he had written. This first effort, which I borrowed from the Seattle Public Library, earned him the Edgar Award and a number of other kudos also. It’s a real page-turner.

Katherine is a mother of two young boys, and although her husband doesn’t know it, she works for the CIA; she has told him she is a government employee, and that she sits around all day writing position papers. She never inquires too closely into the life he led before he met her because she is afraid of the quid pro quo that must surely follow such questioning. The consequence is that she has been married for years to a man she doesn’t really know all that well. But he and the boys are really all she has; she has no other family to speak of.

She’s sitting on a mountain of unspoken experience. She has killed more people than she cares to remember. The reader is fed tiny shards of her memories in gradually increasing tidbits, and it is very effective in building toward the conclusion.

Her spouse Dexter, meanwhile, springs the surprise on her one evening: his work requires him to move from Washington D.C. to the tiny European secret-banking center Luxembourg. He works in I.T. in the banking industry as a security consultant, preventing hackers from thieving the bank’s massive resources. That’s what he tells her, anyway.

Relieved in a way, Katherine quits her job. The CIA doesn’t lift her cover, but they let her go little by little. Now she can finally focus on her sons, on her home, on her marriage…and so she sets up housekeeping in Luxembourg, enrolls the boys in school, enrolls herself in cooking classes during the day…and is bored out of her mind.

It was easy to buy the scenario as Pavone presents it, because it all figures. Who would join the CIA but a real adrenaline junkie? And what woman that has stalked other people, killed people, dodged those that stalked her or that sought retribution…what woman in such circumstances would not be bored out of her mind by cooking classes and shopping for area rugs and shower caddies?

It isn’t made easier by the fact that Dexter is always at work; that’s what he says, anyway. He is at work, on the road, in a meeting all the goddamn time. He spends an awful lot of time with Bill, another American expatriate, whose wife Julia seems a little too friendly to be true.

So is she merely acting like a CIA employee, governed by auto-suspicion? Or are these people setting off her spook-dar for a more substantial reason? And just what the hell is really up with Dexter? You would think the guy could show up for Thanksgiving dinner, for heaven’s sake!

If you have never read anything by Pavone, read this book first, and if you like it as much as I did, get The Accident second. Each is a stand-alone novel; they aren’t a series or sequential. But the second book is just a tiny bit better than this one, and I found myself slightly let down by an ending that seemed slightly too tidy. And in truth, I don’t think I’d have felt that way if I hadn’t already read something of his that is even better. In other words, judged against other thrillers written by other writers, this one is a sure-fire five star novel. Judged against Pavone’s subsequent work, the score shrinks a tiny bit.

The best part of all may have been the afterword. I always wondered about the research that went into writing spy thrillers. How the hell does anyone find out anything about the CIA, unless they are employed there and sworn not to tell? And Pavone tells us how he did it: he made it up. And that’s why it’s called fiction.

Guaranteed to absorb your attention for a long weekend and make all your own troubles look small.