Spy collection accomplishes mission
What is the proper setting for an international thriller in these global times? Is it World War II, the last unequivocally just war, or the fight against terrorism? Does it take place in Europe or the Middle East, or right here at home? These are some of the questions tackled by the authors in this packed anthology, “Agents of Treachery.’’
The assignment, as posed by editor Otto Penzler, was, in his words, “deceptively simple and straightforward: Write an international espionage or thriller story and set it anyplace in the world you like, in any era.’’ The results are uniformly strong and surprisingly varied. While nine of 14 tales take place in the present day, two dive back into World War II, and three — including Charles McCarry’s fabulous opener — fall into the nebulous time between open conflicts. Three take place on domestic soil, while six unfold in Europe, three in or around the Iraqi conflict, and two in Africa.
This breakdown is interesting because in other ways, these stories play on the same themes: treachery and betrayal, often by the teller of the story, or the idea of heroism and our most strongly held beliefs. For example, Cowboy, the cool Vienna veteran, promises to teach the new hand everything he knows in Gayle Lynds’s “Max Is Calling.’’ What the young spy learns from his senior, however, has more to do with Cowboy’s cynicism than with tradecraft. Meanwhile the interrogator in David Morrell’s story of the same name is against torture on practical rather than moral grounds. He trusts his more subtle techniques, at least until the enemies’ increasingly sophisticated responses turn his own skills against him. And Charlie Becker, the hardened former Army Ranger in John Weisman’s “Father’s Day,’’ is a pragmatic mercenary, seemingly invulnerable, even as he longs to take his grandson on his knee.
Many of the stories also take advantage of the short form to insert surprise endings. Both Boston-based Joseph Finder and thriller star Lee Child indulge in this possibility, playing with our perceptions as they unfold little dramas. In “Neighbors,’’ Finder has the advantage of local color as he lays out a possible domestic terror plot downtown and in the parking lots of Logan. But Child’s narrator intentionally keeps the details vague, for everyone’s safety and for a bigger payoff in “Section 7(a) (Operational).’’
The best of these play on the interpersonal relations between characters, quickly establishing heroes and antiheroes of substance. In McCarry’s stellar “The End of the String,’’ the narrator, a US agent, aligns himself with an African revolutionary. Close up, we come to know Benjamin, a seemingly righteous chief of police, as he organizes a coup. Whether Benjamin is a good man, or simply the next dictator in line, is left open.
Often, the catalyst is romance, real or imagined. John Lawton, in “East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road,’’ revisits familiar territory, post-World War II England, with a story of a minor military bureaucrat who willingly trades meaningless secrets in pursuit of passion. His George Horsfield is resigned and dull, until he meets the right woman —a prostitute with whom he can mount a truly strategic campaign. In Andrew Klavan’s chilling “Sleeping With My Assassin,’’ the object of desire may not be what she seems at all. This entire tale is related by a long-dormant sleeper spy as he unravels and finds what could be love or, at least, his fate.
Only a few of these stories (notably Stephen Hunter’s awkward “Casey at the Bat’’) fail to entertain. The rest evoke eternal issues with a few deft strokes, finding the personal and the real in a world of dread.
Clea Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.