The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson

Cover of "The Faithful Spy: A Novel"
The Faithful Spy: A Novel

I used to read a great deal of espionage thrillers.  I especially liked a series with a repeating central character.  In high school and college I used to devour them.  I would find an author I liked and read every book they had written.  There was somehing satisfying about being emersed in a series and a character.

These days my tastes are a little more eccelctic and I have a great deal less time.  No more going back and reading a newly discovered author’s backlist from the start.  This bugs me because I am the kind of person who likes to read a series in order for fear of missing some key fact or even just the more nuanced perspective you get from reading every book in a series or even in an author’s career.

But when Alex Berenson’s latest John Wells novel, The Silent Man, arrived at my door I felt like I needed to read the first two books before jumping in.  Thankfully it was only two books and they are quick reads.

Which brings us to the first book in the series, The Faithful Spy, which won the Edgar Award for a first novel in 2007.  If you like “ripped from the headlines” thrillers with a nice blend of action and geopolitical tension then The Faithful Spy is your kind of book.

Despite being firmly in the international/espionage thriller camp, Berenson brings a great deal of plausibility to his plots and depth to his characters.  They are fast and entertaining reads.

More below.

As this is the first book in the series, Berenson’s first job is to introduce the character of John Wells.  And he is an interesting character for sure.  America’s first spy inside Al Qaeda and yet a man disconnected from his country and not trusted by his superiors.

Due to the nature of the job, and perhaps to his own personality, Wells disappeared for years while he sought to gain the trust of Al Qaeda.  A great deal happened while he was behind enemy lines: his parents died, his wife moved on and remarried; the terrorists struck on 9/11; and Wells converted to Islam.  Despite 9/11, or because of it, Wells is driven to find a way to destroy the terrorist groups leadership.  And then suddenly he is chosen by Bin Ladin’s No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri for an assignment in the US.

When Wells connects with his superiors at the CIA, however, he finds only suspicion and distrust.  But Wells is determined to stop this new plot from the inside even if he has to do it without the CIA.

Clearly his contact, Omar Khadri, is planning something big and Wells is at the heart of it.  But Khadri seems to hold all the cards and Wells isn’t sure he can retain the trust of the terrorists long enough to stop them; before another devastating 9/11 type failure.

For a first time author Berenson does a number of things well:

  • He does a nice job of developing his characters; both central and peripheral.  Each character is set up with a background  and perspective – through vignettes and internal dialogs – that give the reader insight into their mindset as they play their part in the overall story.  This give the novel some depth that thrillers often lack; a sense that you are seeing the story from all sides as it plays out.
  • Wells’ Islamic conversion experience in Afghanistan adds a nice element of tension.  Wells is sympathetic to Muslim complaints and understands the beauty of their faith but still opposes the terrorists with every fiber in his being.  It adds another element of outsiderness to his personality as well.
  • Berenson works in contemporary issues into the story but not with a heavy hand.  Iraq, terrorism, torture policy, US relations with the world, the bureaucratic nature of the CIA, and more are all touched upon but they provide a backdrop and context not an opportunity to lecture or preach.
  • While there is plenty of thriller type action, the overall plot and storyline have a level of plausibility that is rare and frightening.  You never find yourself saying: “Oh, that is ridiculous.”  Instead, you worry that this type of thing is all too plausible.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Faithful Spy is the way Wells’ battle with Khadri develops.  Instead of the good guy relentlessly pursuing the bad guy you have a sort of deadly dance as each tries to outmaneuver the other while at the same time pretending to trust each other.  And even as the reader sees a much bigger picture than Wells, Berenson still has some twists and turns in store as the plot races to the finish.

If there is a drawback it is the tendency toward overwrought self-analysis by Wells (and others).  I am sure Berenson is trying to bring some emotional depth to go with his action but it can come off as a little much at times.  But who am I to say what it must feel like to match wits and violence with international terrorists and not lose your soul?

But The Faithful Spy deserves the praise it has received.  It really is a classic of the genre; a sort of worst nightmare brought to life in a gripping and entertaining fashion.  If you love international thrillers with plots seemingly ripped from the headlines and you haven’t yet read Berenson’s John Wells series be sure to check them out.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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