Book Review: The Counterfeit Agent
by Alex Berenson
At the beginning of The Counterfeit Agent, Alex Berenson’s eighth novel featuring (slightly) aging CIA hotshot John Wells, a pretty (but not beautiful – beautiful attracts too much attention) femme fatale travels all the way to South Africa in order to lay her hands on a small heavy lump of weapons-grade plutonium, which she obtains from a standard-issue Apartheid-era racist she can’t quite bring herself to pity:
His scotch-wet lips drooped. She felt almost sorry for him. His wife was dead. His children and grandchildren lived as far away as they could manage. On most days, his only companions must be the servants he regarded as not quite human. They surely felt the same about him. The loneliness of the master race.
(When he starts to get chummy, she reminds him that she’ll be played by Scarlet Johannson in the movie: “Listen. Maybe you get drunk. Brag to one of your whores. I promise. I’ll come back. I’ll shoot your servants and your dogs. I’ll cut off your shriveled cock and your tiny old-man balls, stuff them in your mouth. Then I’ll tie you to a chair, set the place on fire, burn you alive.”)
It’s a fairly typical opening gambit for today’s crop of post-9/11 mystery-thrillers: they all play on a multi-national stage, they all involve a veritable Baedeker’s of bad guys, they all haul in the Taliban (and the Russians, who, thank God, have returned to their openly-evil ways just in time to pump a little extra life into a sub-genre that was created on the assumption they’d be around forever, plotting the end of America), and most of them involve those two most terrifying words in the English language: loose nukes.
There are two things that separate Berenson’s books from the general run of such Clancy-progeny. The first is Berenson himself, who started out as a cutie-patootie hotshot reporter in Denver before joining The New York Times and landing some of its most coveted assignments, from the invasion of Iraq to the Bernie Madoff Wall Street debacle. And along the way, he started writing espionage novels that were runaway successes from their very first moments in print. In other words, although ordinary people will find it annoying that Berenson has never put a single foot wrong in any kind of endeavor as long as he’s been alive, readers will only benefit, especially from the second thing – because Berenson brings to his novels the kind of narrative snap you best pick up if you’ve done your time in the trenches (figurative and literal) of journalism. As even those two quick excerpts show, you’ll never be for a moment bored when reading a John Wells adventure. You have only to read a single book or two from most of his contemporaries in the field to realize how rare that is.
This latest adventure re-assembles most of Berenson’s familiar cast of characters from his earlier books and sets them on a race against the clock to stop a nuclear plot involving Iran and a clutch of rogue operatives. Berenson has enough front-headlines savvy to make his international wheeling and dealing very convincing, but the real heart of these books isn’t the slightly overcooked adventure elements but rather Wells himself. Berenson takes the added step of making Wells both human and conflicted (this might not strike readers of Eudora Welty as all that much of an innovation, but in the world of thriller-fiction, it definitely counts as a revelation), and this always yields the best moments in any of these books, especially now that our sterling agent (like his creator) is beginning to feel the hand of mortality plucking at his sleeve:
… he was more aware than ever that time was the ultimate victor. He had once been gifted with the coordination and hand speed of a professional basketball player. Now his reflexes had slowed. He’d gone to a batting range a few weeks before for his usual once-a-year test, found himself swiping hopelessly at fastballs he’d once crushed. He was still strong, but close-quarter combat was more about quickness.
(Of course, this passage is hammered home with the expected coda: “To compensate, he worked his shooting, putting in an hour a day at the local range. More than a year had passed since East Africa. Too long. He needed to get back in the field” – innovation has its limits, after all.)
Another slight narrative departure in The Counterfeit Agent is its ending – or lack thereof; this book turns out to be continued in the next one, which is a rarity in the genre specifically because this is a genre designed to be disposable: a 60-year-old alcoholic senior VP of Sales doesn’t pick up (they never buy anything, these guys – they always ‘pick up’) the latest Alex Berenson for his cross-country flight only to discover at LAX that he needs to hang on to (or worse, remember) the damn thing until next year to find out whether or not the world ends. It’s an interesting little change in the formula; it shows encouraging signs that Berenson, now living entirely as a novelist, might be growing impatient with the corseted rules that got him where he is.
Will it work? To be continued!