A review of The Shadow Patrol, by Alex Berenson
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
The cottage industry in spy thrillers encompasses a wide range of quality, from those that offer up cheap thrills with one-dimensional characters facing off in unreal circumstances to those, many fewer, that rise into the realm of literature, illuminating the human condition. The finest of the lot, such as Graham Greene and John Le Carre at their best, stand with other exemplars of modern fiction. Alex Berenson’s writing doesn’t quite measure up to them, but it comes close. His most recent novel about the adventures of soldier-spy John Wells, The Shadow Patrol, explores the tragic dimensions of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, from which no one leaves ennobled.
John Wells has left the CIA and his long-time love, his agency handler, Jennifer Exley, and is living in rural New Hampshire with Anne, a local cop. When his old CIA boss, Ellis Shafer, asks him to return to action in Afghanistan, where he spent so many years undercover inside Al Qaeda, Wells leaps at the chance. The agency’s Kabul station is in crisis. A Jordanian physician, having established a credible cover as an ally, has murdered the CIA’s top brass in the country by setting off a suicide vest. Now, in addition to the chaos that results when replacements for the top officials prove unequal to the task, reports have surfaced that the station has been penetrated by a Taliban mole. Wells’ assignment, to learn the identity of the mole, brings him and the CIA into conflict with the hierarchy of the Special Forces and eventually into a one-on-one test of wills with a Delta sniper who holds the key to the mole’s identity.
Returning years after his last visit to Afghanistan, Wells finds the country, the war, and the agency, all profoundly changed by the billions of U.S. dollars spread about the countryside and the years of unrelenting killing. Cynicism and greed have spread throughout the country like a virus.
When Wells checks into the CIA station in the capital, a senior officer tells him, “First off, understand the strategic situation’s a mess. We’re playing Whac-a-Mole here. First we had our guys in the east, and the south went to hell. Now we’ve moved everybody south, and the east is going to hell. And by the way, the south isn’t great either. This quote-unquote-government we’re working with, it’s beyond corrupt. Everything’s for sale. You want to be a cop? That’s a bribe. Five to ten grand, depending on the district. . . to become a patrolman. You want to be a district-level police chief? Twenty, thirty thousand. At the national level, the cabinet jobs are a quarter million and up.”
While there’s nothing in this monologue that we haven’t learned from news reports and the numerous nonfiction books about the war, this matter-of-fact informality drives home the point more clearly than any “objective” report could do. In fact, Alex Berenson was a New York Times reporter before he turned to full-time writing. As a reporter, he covered the occupation of Iraq, among other big stories, and he brings a reporter’s instinct for news and the value of obscure details to make a story come to light. In The Shadow Patrol, the intimate conversation and inner dialogue of American troops highlights the mind-numbing reality of war much more clearly than any nonfiction account could possibly do.
One of the most revealing passages in the book comes in the course of Wells’ conversation with the same CIA official who spoke of the corruption caused by the influx of U.S. dollars. Wells has asked “So how many officers do you have?”
“We’re close to full strength now. Six hundred in country.”
“But you have to remember, only a few are case officers. More than two hundred handle security. Then we have the coms and IT guys, logistics and administrative . . . and the guys at the airfields, handling the drones. Fewer than forty ever get outside the wire to talk to the locals. Of those, most are working with Afghan security and intelligence forces. If you’re looking at guys recruiting sources on the ground, it’s maybe a dozen. . . . The security situation is impossible. Only the very best officers can work outside the wire without getting popped, and even then only for short stretches.”
This is today’s CIA.
Berenson has devoted significant effort to researching the agency, the reality of the war in Afghanistan, the heroin trade, the art of the sniper, and other elements in this clever and compelling story. The Shadow Patrol — the sixth in Berenson’s John Wells series — is a superb contemporary thriller that delivers both an exciting tale and down-to-earth reporting on the Afghanistan war.
My 21 favorite mystery and thriller writers
Over the course of the past three and a half years, I’ve reviewed well over 100 mysteries and thrillers. A great many of these novels were written by well-established authors with long lists of widely read books to their names. In every case of the 21 writers listed below, I’ve read several of their books (some of them before I launched this blog in January 2010).
If 21 seems a large number of “favorite” writers, consider all the names you won’t find on this list. Those include several — Ross McDonald, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler, for example — whom I last read years ago. Also excluded are the potboilers and slapdash works by the likes of James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Val McDermid, and Robert B. Parker. I read most of these when younger and am happy to leave them behind.
What follows here is a list of links to my reviews of individual mysteries or thrillers by the 21 prolific authors I most enjoy. The list is in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.
The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson
Berenson is a former New York Times reporter who writes beautifully researched stories about soldier-spy John Wells, featuring plots centered on contemporary military and foreign policy issues.
The Drop, by Michael Connelly
Most of Connelly’s 30 novels to date center on the life and work of Los Angeles Police Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller.
Now May You Weep, by Deborah Crombie
Crombie, a Texan who spends extended periods in Great Britain, has written 15 English detective novels that read as though she was born and bred in England.
The Trinty Six, by Charles Cumming
A Briton who has written superior six spy novels, Cumming is often mentioned as a spiritual heir to John Le Carre.
Buried Secrets, by Joseph Finder
Finder is the American author of 11 beautifully crafted thrillers. So far, just two of his novels feature Nick Heller in what appears to be the beginning of a series.
Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst
Since 1976, Furst has written 16 historical spy novels, most of them set in Europe between 1933 and 1944. Furst’s work recreates the mood and atmosphere of the Continent in that era like few others.
Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George
An American, George has written 18 complex and well-written novels featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (plus four other novels).
Long Time Coming, by Robert Goddard
Goddard is an English novelist whose two dozen excellent novels are typically set in rural towns, with the origins of their plots found decades in the past.
The Racketeer, by John Grisham
Most of Grisham’s 26 crime novels are set in the American South and involve lawyers and legal shenanigans. He has also written 7 other books since he began writing full-time in 1989.
John Le Carre
Though I wasn’t impressed with Le Carre’s recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor, I can’t help but include him in this list. I’m now immersed in his latest work, A Delicate Truth, which strikes me as on a par with his earlier, much praised novels. (To be reviewed soon.)
The Man From Beijing, by Henning Mankell
A Swede, Mankell’s 11 Kurt Wallander crime stories are dark, complex, and often politically tinged novels that reflect his experience as a long-time progressive activist. He has also written 25 other books.
The Leopard: A Harry Hole Novel, by Jo Nesbo
Nesbo, a Norwegian, has written 10 complexly plotted mystery novels about the troubled Detective Harry Hole as well as 8 other novels.
Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky
All but two of Paretsky’s 17 novels feature private detective V. I. (Victoria) Warshawski, who tackles Chicago’s corrupt establishment without compunction.
The Cut, by George Pelecanos
Pelecanos, best known for his writing on the HBO series “The Wire,” is the author of 21 novels, most of them gritty detective stories set on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Silken Prey, by John Sandford
Sandford has written 23 crime novels with the word “Prey” in their titles, all featuring Lucas Davenport, an independently wealthy senior investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Sandford has written 13 additional novels, 7 of them featuring Virgil Flowers, a colorful member of Davenport’s team.
Criminal, by Karin Slaughter
Of Slaughter’s 17 books, 14 are haunting crime stories set in Georgia about the lives of a set of interrelated characters in Atlanta and fictional Grant County.
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith
Smith’s 14 adult novels (so far) about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, comprise just one of many series in a list of works that’s almost too numerous to count. The man must turn them all out through automatic writing in his sleep!
Three Stations: An Arkady Renko Novel by Martin Cruz Smith
The 8 fascinating novels in Smith’s Arkady Renko series about the Soviet, later Russian crime investigator are among a total of 27 he’s written under several pseudonyms.
Victory Square, by Olen Steinhauer
Steinhauer, an American who has spent extensive periods in Eastern Europe, is the author of a brilliant five-book series about the members of the murder squad in the capital of a fictional country in that region. More recently, the young author has written three thrillers about an American spy and his fictional agency.
Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh
A former Los Angeles police officer, Wambaugh has written 16 novels and 5 nonfiction accounts about crime and crimefighters since 1971. Nearly all his novels are police procedurals set in L.A., bringing the authentic experience on the streets to life.
Get Real, by Donald E. Westlake
Writing under his own name as well as 16 pseudonyms, Westlake produced a total of 111 novels from 1959 until his death in 2008, nearly all of them set in New York City, two of them published posthumously. My favorites are the many humorous caper tales about the sardonic master criminal, John Dortmunder.
In addition to these 21 writers, I’ve read excellent mysteries and thrillers by 12 other authors whose output is more limited either because they’re young and just beginning their careers, they write primarily in other genres, or, in at least the case of Stieg Larsson, they’re dead.
Among the younger writers here that show special promise are Gillian Flynn, Tana French, and Tom Rob Smith.
Following are links to my reviews of individual novels by these 12 authors.
Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson
Disciple of the Dog, by R. Scott Bakker
A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
Faithful Place, by Tana French
So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman
The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones
Shaman Pass: A Nathan Active Mystery, by Stan Jones
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson
The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville
Primitive by Mark Nykanen
Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith
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Tagged as Alan Furst, alex berenson, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Cumming, Deborah Crombie, donald e. westlake, Elizabeth George, George Pelecanos, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, John Grisham, John Sandford, Joseph Finder, Joseph Wambaugh, Karin Slaughter, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Connelly, Olen Steinhauer, robert goddard, Sara Paretsky