A Book Recommendation for the Holidays
A break from the usual political and social commentary
If you’re seeking my commentary on politics and social problems, then maybe skip this post. Here I’m simply giving advice on a great read.
I’m a fan of spy thrillers, and I just read the best one I’ve consumed in decades. It’s “Damascus Station,” a brilliant debut novel by a former CIA analyst named David McCloskey. The novel starts with great drama and never lets up.
The novel recounts how a CIA officer named Sam Joseph recruits a Syrian woman as a spy, equips and trains her, and then manages her in Damascus — with the complication that they fall into a forbidden love.
There’s also lots of spycraft that I assume is real, given McCloskey’s six years in the CIA. Who would have thought of a dead animal for a “dead drop” to exchange messages? And case officers really spend eight or more hours on a “surveillance detection route” to make sure that they aren’t followed, before meeting an agent? CIA censors reportedly required deletions of some material, but lots of cool stuff survived.
One challenge for authors of spy thrillers is that much of espionage is boring. It’s waiting around, doing paperwork, surveillance and the like, and none of that is as interesting as a good chase scene. But McCloskey manages an extraordinarily realistic narrative with plenty of action, and I bet this becomes a movie as well.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the professional community is full of praise. David Petraeus, the former CIA director, calls it “the best spy novel I have ever read.”
McCloskey also manages plenty of grays. How should a spymaster feel about sending someone to perform a task that may get that person killed? What do we do when everything goes wrong? What moral obligations do we have for those who spy for us, even if they also lie to us?
I’ve never know a writer as good at the spy novel as John LeCarre, but McCloskey approaches. We’re seeing the emergence of a remarkable talent.
Over at the Washington Post, I was reading a sometime spy novelist, David Ignatius, reporting from Ukraine on coordinated battlefield use of all sorts of data, including fresh remote sensing. All those satellites. This very sophisticated work, done with lots of input from NATO, reminded me of the astonishing British decoding efforts during World War II. I suspect that Alan Turing would be delighted at today's massive, quick, and smart use of data. Russia? I suspect their best and brightest are nowhere to be seen, least of all with the army. Or Wagner.
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