I wish we could claim Alan Furst (Night Soldiers, Spies of the Balkans, and others) as a Washingtonian, because he ranks with Ignatius at the pinnacle of today’s spy fiction. But he’s a New Yorker who’s mainly glimpsed here at signings. We can, however, claim ties to another top practitioner, Olen Steinhauer, who was born in Baltimore and raised near Richmond—and I’m told, visits here often to conduct interviews and check out the latest gadgetry at the International Spy Museum.
Steinhauer has lived in Europe in recent years, which helped inspire five novels that chronicled the Cold War in Eastern Europe—The Bridge of Sighs and The Confession are two of them. This series was followed in 2009 by The Tourist, the first novel in a trilogy about CIA agent Milo Weaver. In The Tourist, the CIA keeps highly skilled assassins—called Tourists—stationed around the world. When we first meet Weaver, he’s a burned-out Tourist who has quit the killing game but is lured back to save an old friend.
Part of the fun of reading novels about the CIA is the wildly different ways it’s portrayed. The Tourist is a portrait of the agency as a nest of highly lethal, surpassingly cynical vipers. It’s also a gripping story, and George Clooney’s production company has optioned the novel, with Clooney expected to star.
Many of today’s best American spy novelists have come out of journalism, but lately they’re rivaled by ex–CIA agents who have rejected the code of silence. Four books by such veterans—three of them former CIA agents, one a Middle East expert—are worth singling out.
When Milt Bearden retired from the CIA in 1994 after 30 years in its clandestine services, the agency showered him with honors befitting his status as a Cold Warrior who had directed the final years of its secret campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan, then served as the agency’s station chief in Germany when Soviet forces withdrew from Berlin.
After retiring, Bearden published The Black Tulip, in which his hero, Alexander Fannin, works closely with real-life CIA director William Casey to expand US support for the Afghan warriors battling the Soviets. Early in the novel, Fannin provides Stinger missiles to the Afghans, and later he conspires with a KGB colonel to bring an end to the war. Bearden doesn’t gloss over backstabbing at the CIA, but he obviously believes in the agency and is proud of his record. If you want to know how the agency operated in Afghanistan, his fictional report is one of the most realistic accounts you’ll find.
Robert Baer attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, spent 20 years directing CIA agents in the Middle East, and since retiring has written three controversial books. His Middle East memoir, See No Evil, was the source for the movie Syriana, which won George Clooney an Academy Award.
In 2006, Baer published a freewheeling novel called Blow the House Down, which offers an alternative scenario to the 9/11 attacks in which Americans were involved in the planning. The story unfolds in early 2001 as agent Max Waller, who’s being forced out of the CIA for his independent ways, stumbles onto a conspiracy that no one else in government seems to care about. The novel is an in-depth look at Middle East politics, an angry portrait of the CIA, and a great read.
Colin MacKinnon’s Morning Spy, Evening Spy (2006) offers another alternative 9/11 plot. But while Baer was CIA, MacKinnon was editor of Middle East Executive Reports and Iran coordinator for Amnesty International. Still, he must have had friends in the agency, because his novel draws an entirely convincing portrait of a CIA agent, Paul Patterson, operating both in Langley and the Middle East, where his search for Osama bin Laden leads him toward the upcoming 9/11 attacks.
MacKinnon’s novel is less flamboyant than Baer’s, but he’s angry, too, and the book doesn’t hide his belief that the FBI and CIA could have prevented the attacks if they’d done their jobs better.
MacKinnon, like Baer, offers frequent glimpses of Washington in his novel, with scenes at Clyde’s, the Dubliner, and other well-known bars and hotels. His protagonist lives in Arlington, and one morning at dawn he walks across the Chain Bridge:
“At this hour traffic over the bridge is still sparse. As the vehicles pass, one by one, their weight makes the structure flex and bounce under my feet, its movement giving me an eerie, unsteady feeling.” Not unlike, perhaps, the feeling an agent knows when he’s entering dangerous territory.
After many years abroad, MacKinnon now lives in Chevy Chase.