Body of Lies, David Ignatius

Norton, 2007 (2008 reprint), 360 pages, C$15.50 tpb, ISBN 978-0-393-33429-6

The years since the cold war haven’t been kind to espionage thrillers. After the fall of the USSR, writers had a tough time finding a credible replacement for the all-powerful Soviet Empire. Trying to spy on drug cartels, North Koreans or secretive corporations sometimes worked, but often didn’t carry the same charge. But as Body of Lies demonstrates, spying is still a capable thrill generator, as long as you understand the nature of twenty-first-century intelligence operations.

While many contemporary thrillers have taken refuge in fantasy world made of politically partisan axioms, reporter David Ignatius’ Body of Lies heads into the other direction, taking a hard look at America’s increasingly precarious place in the world. The novel begins in post-invasion Iraq, as American intelligence services are looking for ways to infiltrate terrorist networks. But their intentions aren’t matched by their power on the ground, and it’s up to agent Roger Ferris to suffer the consequences of stateside callousness when his ground operation blows up in his face. Transferred to Jordan while his marriage crumbles, Ferris finds himself stuck between his cynically slimy boss and the head of the Jordanian intelligence service. While Europe has to deal with an unprecedented campaign of suicide bombers, Ferris hits upon a plan to infiltrate a terrorist network… thanks to a dead body.

But if there’s a recurring idea in this book, it’s that for all of their money, intentions and high tech equipment, Americans are disadvantaged when it comes to ground operations in the Middle East. Trying to run spies in foreign countries can be a difficult dance with local authorities, while terrorist networks find strength in their tech-savvy lack of central organization. In this context, Ferris is a young man with an old-school mentality, as he disdains the quick crutch of signal intelligence in favor of human assets cultivated over sustained relationships.

Perhaps Body of Lies‘ finest achievement is in re-casting well-worn spy thriller concepts in a way that seems perfectly attuned to the current zeitgeist. Its portrayal of modern intelligence operations is credible, even as it self-avowedly riffs off a World War 2 operation as its central conceit. (Fans of Ewen Montagu’s The Man Who Never Was will be pleased.) At the same time, Body of Lies tackles several of the standby themes of espionage fiction: the twisted relationships, the power trade-offs, the lack of trust, the tension between signal and human sources, the hierarchal tensions between field operators and headquarter managers, and so on. For those who haven’t read a good spy thriller in a while, Body of Lies is a great way to get back in the genre: it’s got vivid characters, mesmerizing procedural details and crisp writing. Best of all, it’s got no visible political ax to grind beyond an acquiescence that America often makes mistakes.

Fans of the Ridley Scott movie adaptation will be pleased to see that the film stays surprisingly true to most of the book despite the removal of one major female character and the titular body of lies. But there’s a really fascinating extra plot twist near the end of the story that wasn’t carried over the the film, a pernicious little extension of the story’s theme that becomes a bonus for those tempted by the book.

Body of Lies is all the more remarkable in that it’s a perfectly entertaining beach read that also doubles as a solid world-aware thriller with more on its mind than just gunfights and jeep chases. It’s American without being America-centric, and modern without abandoning the lessons of the past. It’s a welcome tonic for the spying thriller, and a satisfying read for anyone who’s paid attention to the headline news over the past few years.

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