We gave it a B-
It’s tough to work up much nostalgia for the Cold War, but, if nothing else, we can thank those decades of nuclear standoff for nourishing one of the all-time great literary innovations: the spy novel. The serpentine masterpieces of Eric Ambler and John le Carré, populated by tragic little men who were simultaneously pawns and players in mind-bending games within games, can hold their own against the 20th century’s best literary fiction. The post-9/11 geopolitical scene, with its religious fervors and ever-shifting alliances and animosities, would seem to offer all the ingredients for terrific espionage tales. But can a Cold War genre contain today’s volatile conflicts? And can a Westerner step outside his biases to produce a coolheaded, plot-driven thriller?
In Body of Lies, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius applies the le Carré template to the feverish new global reality. Secretive but soulful CIA agent Roger Ferris — a classic type — is stationed in Jordan, charged with hunting down a diabolical al-Qaeda operative known as Suleiman. ”We think Suleiman is coming to America next — maybe with nuclear or biological,” says Ferris’ shifty CIA superior. ”He has all the strings in his hand. And one of these days, he’s going to pull them.”
Ferris hatches a deliciously complicated scheme to infiltrate Suleiman’s network, one that requires the corpse of an uncircumcised American male, fake mustaches, a mouth guard with poison gel, and the betrayal of some of Ferris’ allies, most notably Hani Salaam, the charismatic and ruthless chief of Jordanian intelligence. Hani is an irresistibly complex figure, but Ignatius unwisely cuts corners on other crucial characterizations, crudely signaling his politics and undermining his tale.
Back in Washington, D.C., Ferris has a wife, Gretchen, a selfish Republican lawyer and tax cheat who likes to ”wear red, listen to U2, get bikini waxed at a fancy spa.” Who can blame Ferris for dumping this shallow right-winger for Alice Melville, a high-minded young blonde working in a camp for Palestinian refugees? No ”Sunday, Bloody Sunday” for Alice; she prefers the Lebanese crooner Fairuz, who sings ”of the distantly remembered pleasures of Arab village life.” Under Alice’s influence, Ferris’ patriotic resolve erodes, and when her philanthropic work collides with his plans for busting Suleiman, he’s forced to make hard choices.
Except, by now, they’re not particularly hard, as Ferris has been won over by Alice’s sermons on imperial overreach, and by the ”enchanting, afflicted” culture of the Middle East. No matter how adamantly you agree with Ignatius’ point of view, or how much you want a happy ending for Ferris, it’s frustrating to find such a gooey center in an otherwise sophisticated thriller. B-