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The Faithful Spyby Alex Berenson
I just got through reading The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson. I started reading it on my lunch, forced myself to work for a few hours, and then hustled home to continue. Kids ate leftovers; dishes went undone; pleasant dinner conversation was cut short. Back to my thriller. I finished at about 9 o'clock and was bereft. No more John Wells, no more Alex Berenson for another year (if we're lucky). This could be the writer we've been waiting for — the successor to John Le Carré. The Faithful Spy is a great contemporary thriller that is both insightful and a page-turner.
Synopses & Reviews
A New York Times reporter has drawn upon his experience covering the occupation in Iraq to write the most gripping and chillingly plausible thriller of the post-9/11 era. Alex Berenson?s debut novel of suspense, The Faithful Spy, is a sharp, explosive story that takes readers inside the war on terror as fiction has never done before.
John Wells is the only American CIA agent ever to penetrate al Qaeda. Since before the attacks in 2001, Wells has been hiding in the mountains of Pakistan, biding his time, building his cover. Now, on the orders of Omar Khadri — the malicious mastermind plotting more al Qaeda strikes on America — Wells is coming home. Neither Khadri nor Jennifer Exley, Wells?s superior at Langley, knows quite what to expect.
For Wells has changed during his years in the mountains. He has become a Muslim. He finds the United States decadent and shallow. Yet he hates al Qaeda and the way it uses Islam to justify its murderous assaults on innocents. He is a man alone, and the CIA — still reeling from its failure to predict 9/11 or find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — does not know whether to trust him. Among his handlers at Langley, only Exley believes in him, and even she sometimes wonders. And so the agency freezes Wells out, preferring to rely on high-tech means for gathering intelligence.
But as that strategy fails and Khadri moves closer to unleashing the most devastating terrorist attack in history, Wells and Exley must somehow find a way to stop him, with or without the government?s consent.
From secret American military bases where suspects are held and "interrogated" to basement laboratories where al Qaeda?s scientists grow the deadliest of biological weapons, The Faithful Spy is a riveting and cautionary tale, as affecting in its personal stories as it is sophisticated in its political details. The first spy thriller to grapple squarely with the complexities and terrors of today?s world, this is a uniquely exciting and unnerving novel by an author who truly knows his territory.
"After proving his loyalty in Afghanistan and elsewhere, CIA agent John Wells, the first Western intelligence officer to penetrate the upper levels of al-Qaeda, is assigned a mission on American soil by bin Laden's chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. On his return to the U.S., Wells, now a devout Muslim (for real), finds his years spent in deep cover have left him conflicted. The agency itself seems wary of him — other than Jennifer Exley, the agency analyst who debriefs Wells (aka Jalal) on his return. The scrutiny intensifies when two bombs go off in L.A., killing 300. Berenson, a New York Times correspondent since 1999 who covered the occupation of Iraq, deftly employs the classic staples of spy fiction in his debut novel — self-serving bureaucrats, a beautiful co-worker love interest and an on-the-run hero suspected of being a traitor — then mixes in current terror tropes: car bombs, smuggled nuclear material, and bio-weapons. There's too much introspection from friend and foe alike, but mounting suspense, a believable scenario and a final twist add up to a compelling tale of frightening possibilities. It's not for the squeamish, though: the torture sequences and bombing descriptions are graphic and chillingly real." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Let's give New York Times reporter Alex Berenson credit for the year's most surefire thriller plot: CIA agent infiltrates al-Qaeda. It's such a sky-high concept that the film rights were auctioned off months ago, and Keanu Reeves may play undercover agent John Wells. If the idea is an inspired one in terms of commercial fiction, Berenson's execution of it is less so, but 'The Faithful Spy' offers... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) a well-informed, often chilling look at how al-Qaeda might launch a major new attack in the United States — and how one intrepid undercover agent might do his darnedest to foil it. We first see Wells in Afghanistan in 2001, leading a band of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. Although an American, he has been with al-Qaeda long enough that his men trust him absolutely: 'After years fighting jihad in Afghanistan and Chechnya, he spoke perfect Arabic and Pashtun. His beard was long, his hands callused. He rode a horse almost as well as the natives. ... He prayed with them. He had proven that he belonged here, with these men.' Of course, whether Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders trust him is another matter: 'He could not truly prove himself except by dying for them, and that he did not plan to do.' They trust him enough to send him to the States, where he is to assist master spy Omar Khadri, who is putting together a massive attack, but Wells isn't told the specifics of the plan. When he makes furtive contact with his bosses at the CIA, he finds he is not trusted there, either. They fear he has been 'doubled,' won over to jihad; threatened with arrest, he is soon on the run, determined to prevent the attack on his own. At the same time, through the eyes of his friend and colleague Jennifer Exley, we are taken inside the CIA's frustrated efforts to piece together what new act of terrorism is coming. Berenson is very good on all the things you would expect a skilled reporter to be good on. He gives a vivid picture of a U.S. Army raid on a terrorist meeting in Iraq, perhaps drawing on the three months he spent reporting for the Times there, and follows it with a persuasive portrait of how a captured Pakistani scientist is broken by torture at the hands of U.S. interrogators. He presents an all-too-convincing portrayal of how 'sleeper cells' in the United States might acquire both a plague bacterium and a 'dirty' nuclear device, and offers a detailed and bloody account of the explosion of two ANFO (ammonium nitrate-fuel oil) bombs that takes 336 lives in a major U.S. city — and is just a diversion from the larger attack that lies ahead. Berenson spices his narrative with caustic comments about those fighting on both sides of the war on terror. He says of bin Laden and his fanatical followers: 'They wanted to take the religion back to the seventh-century desert. They couldn't compete in the modern world, so they would pretend that it didn't exist. Or destroy it.' Of the CIA's difficulties in monitoring terrorists' e-mails, he notes: 'In the race between the spies and the spammers, the spammers were winning. Penis-enlargement pills had turned out to be Osama's best friend.' His scorn for much of the intelligence bureaucracy is seen in the fate of one talented CIA agent who predicted the Sept. 11 attacks — and now is not trusted because he's clearly not a team player. But Berenson stumbles when he shifts from terrorism to matters of the heart. We are told that Wells has been celibate during his 10 years with al-Qaeda. Even when he returns to the United States and is astonished by all the skin American women are now pleased to reveal, he aches for sex but vows not to pay for it or engage in one-night stands. His resolve is sorely tested by a woman he meets in a bar, but his purity is saved when her drunken ex-boyfriend bangs on the door. The real reason for Wells' stubborn chastity is his continued love for the aforementioned Jennifer Exley. They met in CIA training, when both were married to others. There seems to have been a chaste flirtation before he went underground. She agonizes over her passion for a man she has only seen 'for all of two weeks in the last ten years,' asking herself: 'Did he think of her the way she thought of him?' Well, yes, he does, but it's all pretty dippy, as is Wells' attempt to assuage his loneliness by buying two goldfish — and even that ends badly: 'Lucy had died, but Ricky was still alive, swimming listlessly.' Berenson even hokes up the cliffhanger climax of the novel — when Wells will or will not prevent the deaths of several hundred thousand Americans — by involving his beloved in it, against all logic. As long as Berenson sticks to the war on terror, 'The Faithful Spy' is a first-rate thriller. If it fails to rise to the highest level of the genre — that of Frederick Forsyth's 'The Day of the Jackal' or Thomas Harris' 'Black Sunday,' to name two other works by reporters who turned to fiction — it is because he has made his story a bit too slick and his hero a bit too good to be true. But his novel remains a timely reminder of the extremely precarious way we live now." Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The plotting is superlative, baffling readers and characters alike....
"A thriller worthy of le Carré....The payoff is tremendous....Well done throughout, and sure to be noticed." Kirkus Reviews
"The Faithful Spy offers a well-informed, often chilling look at how al-Qaeda might launch a major new attack in the United States....[A] first-rate thriller." Patrick Anderson, The Washington Post
"A well-crafted page-turner that addresses the most important issue of our time. It will keep you reading well into the night." Vince Flynn
"The threats with which this thriller deals — fertilizer bombs, the plague, anthrax — are all too common, and a tepid romance that seems to have no real foundation adds little to the mix. Well written, but pretty standard stuff." Library Journal
"Berenson, who has a superb eye for the telling detail, is excellent at describing Wells's relations with his new chums in Afghanistan as well as battle scenes." Jacob Heilbrunn, The New York Times Book Review
"For sheer drama, no one can fault Berenson's plot....What Berenson ends up with is a book that is more interesting than it is engrossing. A reader will feel like there's a real story here, if only it had a better storyteller." Detroit Free Press
About the Author
Alex Berenson is a reporter for the New York Times who has covered topics ranging from the occupation of Iraq to the flooding of New Orleans. He graduated from Yale University in 1994 with degrees in history and economics. This is his first novel. He lives in New York City.
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