With spy novels there is a tendency to divide writers into two groups: There are the literary John Le Carre types, with luscious prose that waxes on about brooding spooks and the like. And there are the popcorn-thrillers, like those by the late Tom Clancy, thin on character development but plump with plot.
Turns out, with some proper tradecraft, you can have it both ways. "The Counterfeit Agent" is the eighth spy thriller penned by Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter with a keen eye for plot, telling (and often bloody) details and, perish the thought, well drawn but hardly overwrought characters. As with his previous books, "Agent" stars John Wells, an occasionally otherworldly but deeply human superspy of a sort.
Berenson's previous books have taken the reader, and Wells, all over the world from China to Somalia to the big sky of Montana on a series of escapades large and small in scale. Here the focus is on Turkey and Iran, where a nuclear plot may or may not be taking shape. Wells, as ever, is the catalyst, a Jason Bourne-like presence who, often enough, ends up saving the world, a sovereign nation, or a hapless character or three.
But he is also so much more than that, which is what distinguishes "Agent" and its predecessors from the pile. Wells is a cipher for world events, but he is given flesh and bone before he's dispatched to the world's dark corners. "Agent" is as topical as any of Berenson's books and, with its sharp details and knowingness, gives you the distinct impression that the author has talked to more than enough people to know of what he speaks.
The question for Wells this time is: What is the nature of the threat? Is it real? As the novel begins, Wells is sent to Latin America to check out a tip from his former boss at the CIA, who has left Langley for the marbled corridors of Congress. A continent away, in Istanbul, a seemingly watertight Iranian source warns a CIA agent that Iran plans to kill a CIA station chief. The novel's arc takes the reader and Wells through a treacherous, twisting world of spies both affiliated and seemingly unaffiliated with sovereign nations. The question isn't just whether Wells can stop a nuclear showdown, it's also the nature of the showdown itself.
The plot is every bit the thrill ride it sounds like. But the best part is that you don't have to feel too guilty about it. The operatives and lowlifes alike are well drawn. A character's path to the CIA is set in motion by reading "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" in high school. His split with the agency is set off by a well-crafted and believable act of personal betrayal.
Then there is Wells. He is, necessarily, a dashing, hard-to-defeat fellow. But he is deeply human, frustrated as often by love and his own personal demons as by the villains around him. He is a morally complex protagonist, an entertaining guy to hang out with. He alone makes "Agent" worth the read.