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The compulsive browser: Spy vs Spy

Book cover of 'I am Pilgrim'

Book cover of 'I am Pilgrim'  

The break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War were not good news for spy fiction writers, as it meant losing their biggest source of inspiration.

For some time, their attention shifted to the drug wars, the Israel-Arab conflict  and  corporate crime but 9/11 changed all that and with the Arab Spring, Iran, Iraq, Isis, Gaza, Putin's resurgent Russia, Wikileaks and NSA whistleblowers, there is enough out there to inspire the new crop of writers.

Political columnist and CIA expert David Ignatius' novels have always been noted for their authenticity and his latest The Director is no exception. Graham Weber, a former businessman, is entrusted with the task of reforming the CIA as its new director. But he soon finds himself drawn into a culture of lies and deception in which he is not able to trust anyone. A crisis looms as a young hacker dies without revealing information about a serious breach in the agency's systems, while the agent entrusted with the task of investigating the crime goes missing. Through all this, Weber must find a way to balance his liberal instincts with the demands of his job where breaking the law of other countries is part of the daily routine.

Ignatius draws the reader into the geeky world of hacking and cyber crime while giving us a history lesson on the origins and the working of the CIA which was apparently set up with the help of the British Secret Service MI5 to serve their aims in a post-war world. While Ignatius clearly may not have set out to write an edge-of-the-seat thriller, tighter editing would have contributed to a more gripping read. If you have not read Ignatius before, his previous novels Blood Money or Body of Liesmight serve as a better introduction.

For a long time, I have been meaning to read Daniel Silva's thrillers featuring the art restorer and forger Gabriel Allon, who also happens to be an assassin and spy for the Israeli agency Mossad. In   The Heist,Allon is drawn into an investigation regarding a missing Caravaggio masterpiece and the trail leads him to a bank  that is managing the ill-gotten funds of the ruling family of Syria. This is the 14th novel in the series and fans will find all the familiar ingredients of a compelling cast of characters that includes spies, assassins, dodgy art dealers, Corsican gangsters, Russian Oligarchs, bankers and forgers, and a plot that mixes art history and  espionage against the backdrop of the current Syrian crisis. The Heist is as good a place to be introduced to Allon, who is certainly one of the most fascinating fictional spies in the game today.

In I Am Pilgrimby Terry Hayes, the plot is driven by two fascinating characters, a former U.S spy code-named Pilgrim who has written the definitive book on crime investigation, while the other is an Arab Jehadi known as the Saracen.  

In a race against time, Pilgrim has to stop the Saracen from carrying out a horrifying biological act of terrorism against the U.S . But as the Saracen is working solo, the hunt is like finding a needle in a haystack. Hayes, a screenwriter whose credits include the Mad Max films, revels in fleshing out the back stories of these two characters as this debut novel builds to a thrilling climax.  

But I have saved the best for last. Red Sparrow by Jason Mathew is easily one of the best spy novels I have read in a long time and I state this after a fortnight of high-quality thriller reading. It is also one of the quirkiest as each chapter ends with a recipe of a dish featured in the text! Here again, the action centres around two protagonists, a Russian spy and former ballerina, Dominika Egorov, who has extra sensory powers, and a CIA agent Nate Nash.

 The Russians know that Nate is the handler of a senior mole in their own secret service codenamed Marble. So Dominika's mission is to ensnare Nate through a 'honey trap' in order to unmask Marble.  Former CIA agent Mathews brings all his 30-odd years of experience in the field to bear in this gripping cat and mouse game, which deservedly won this year's International Thriller Writers Award for best debut novel.  Not surprisingly, a sequel is in the works and it would be interesting to watch if Mathews can sustain this level of writing and join the pantheon of former-spies-turned-thriller-writers that includes John Le Carré and Ian Fleming.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 3:00:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-compulsive-browser-spy-vs-spy/article6405026.ece

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