Each Sunday, WW writer John Minervini will bring you the latest in book reviews, author Q&A's, and Portland literary gossip.
Six-word Summary: Heroic Doc, Loaded Glock, Ticking Clock
Viva beach reading! Thanks to summer spy novels, even the most listless reader can hijack a police car or outski an avalanche, all from the comfort of his terrycloth towel. No moral? No aftertaste? No problem.
Of course, some writing is meant to be contemplated, savored. Think Toni Morrison's Beloved
or anything by Gunter Grass. But other writing is meant to be scarfed like butter-drenched movie popcorn, irrespective of nutritional value. Case in point: The Rules of Deception
(Doubleday, 388 pages, $24.95). A glossy-cover spy thriller set predominantly in Switzerland, it practically begs for a movie adaptation starring Matt Damon. There's only one problem: author Christopher Reich has embedded some seriously reactionary politics in there.
But before we get into the plot, here's a fun little mini-quiz. It's my theory that in The Rules of Deception
, you can tell exactly what kind of character someone will be, based solely on his or her name. That makes sense, considering the genre. Beach readers don't want to have to worry
about whether a character is a good or a bad—that takes energy! Thus, a considerate author will let them know straightaway.
To test the theory, see if you can match the following character names with the appropriate descriptions. Scroll to the bottom of the article for correct answers.
_1._ Phillip Palumbo _2._ Milli Brandt _3._ Markus von Daniken _4._ Jonathan Ransom _5._ Simone Noiret _6._ Tobi Tingeli _7._ The Ghost
_A._ Hardboiled but honest police captain _B._ Toothsome double agent _C._ Cold-blooded assassin _D._ BDSM-inclined financier playboy _E._ Rugged doctor turned unwilling hero _F:_ Bumbling CIA jock _G._ IAEA exec, Israeli spy
During the eight years of their marriage, Jonathan Ransom never dreamed his wife was a spy. To him, she was just Emma, a plucky British co-worker at Doctors Without Borders. But when Emma is killed in a climbing accident, Ransom begins to learn the true nature of her life in espionage—and in doing so, he becomes a player, himself. Think True Lies
, with the gender roles reversed.
Before he knows what's going on, Ransom gets caught in the middle of a catfight between the CIA and the Pentagon, involving digital surveillance butterflies and the sale of uranium enrichment machinery to Iran. What begins as Ransom's attempt to clear his own name rapidly transforms into a race to stop World War III.
The solipsistic moral of the story? Every conflict in the world is basically an extension of the war between rival American intelligence agencies. Groups like the CIA and Pentagon-based Division will stop at nothing in their peevish contest to be the most secret, the most extravagantly-funded, the most glamorously-unsupervised spy team in the state of Virginia, even if that means launching a nuclear war in the Middle East. Ultimately, the grudges between Israel and Palestine are lover's quarrels compared to the grudges begat at Yale in the 1970's.
That's all well and good—it's standard spy novel conspiracy theory, and it makes for a decent page-turner. But it's less appealing when Reich dips his toe into the toxic Jacuzzi of reactionary politics.
On one hand, the author treats fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam as equally dangerous—an interesting twist for an otherwise conservative spy novel. On the other hand, Reich tacitly endorses controversial practices like extraordinary rendition, wiretapping, and extreme interrogation tactics. Take, for instance, the following conversation snippet between Markus von Daniken (honest cop) and Alphons Marti (corrupt bureaucrat):
Alphons Marti: “[The Americans] have been using our airspace to ferry suspects to their secret prisons for far too long. It makes me sick to think of the innocent men they've captured, the lives they've destroyed.”
Markus von Daniken: “Since when are they innocent? The Americans have stopped quite a few attacks. The system is working.” (p. 320)
Hear that? It's working. In fact, Daniken's assertion goes essentially unchallenged, and it's further vindicated by a successful instance of extraordinary rendition in the novel. After being secretly flown to Egypt and tortured, fictional terrorist Walid Gassan reveals key information and the names of several of his contacts to CIA agent Phillip Palumbo.
Why, you might ask, bring politics into it? After all, what kind of spy novel would it be without a few bloody fingernails here and there?
The problem isn't necessarily torture or wiretapping—both of which make for juicy reading—rather, it's the way Christopher Reich wields them. In his book, they're the province of the good guys, America. And The Rules of Deception
is full of such instances—instances where Uncle Sam's violating civil liberties or intentional law is not only justified; it's a matter of life and death.
Not to mention the rampant warmongering. As you might expect, Iran is demonized, Israel lionized. In fact, in an absurd epilogue, Israel triumphantly drops sixteen nuclear bombs on Iran—a preemptive strike designed to wipe out its newly-discovered (fictional!) nuclear capabilities—and the grateful world applauds. Wait, wasn't this supposed to be beach reading?
CORRECT ANSWERS TO MINI-QUIZ: 1F, 2G, 3A, 4E, 5B, 6D, 7C