I was about 100 pages into Alex Berenson's mesmerizing new spy thriller, "The Ghost War," one midnight dreary recently when the familiar National Weather Service "BWAAA! BWAAA! BWAAA!" started exploding incessantly from a nearby radio, warning of imminent severe thunderstorms, possible tornadoes and the dreaded "straight-line winds."
As vicious gusts shook the house, lights flickered and raindrops pounded the roof, I did not move away from windows, nor did I move immediately to the most enclosed interior room of the house. I kept turning pages. And because I am a board-certified severe weather hypochondriac, I consider any book that keeps me reading through both meteorological hell and literal high water an extraordinary achievement.
"The Ghost War" (Putnam, $24.95, 383 pages) picks up where "The Faithful Spy," New York Timesman Berenson's Edgar-winning debut novel left off.
Tough, volatile, Arab-speaking CIA agent John Wells, who in the previous novel infiltrated al Qaida in Afghanistan, then thwarted a huge terrorist plot in Times Square, returns to face a possibly more dangerous (and even more frighteningly plausible) threat to America.
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When a CIA mission to extract its most productive double agent from North Korea goes terribly wrong (and the description of that disaster is among the most suspenseful passages I have read), Wells and others quickly come to learn that there is a mole (a la Robert Hanssen) burrowed somewhere deep, but very high, in the agency.
It soon becomes clear, and in obviously well-researched detail, that something very scary is afoot involving China, Iran, North Korea and the Taliban, whose distrust of us, as we come to surmise in Berenson's scenario, doesn't mean they are necessarily that fond of one another.
To be fair to Berenson, who is to nuances of pacing and dramatic effect what Glenn Gould is to the "Goldberg Variations," this brief summary may make "The Ghost War" sound like classed-up Ludlum or dumbed- down Le Carre. It is neither. Hero Wells is no Bourne-again stereotype of a secret agent man, but a complex blend of smarts, scars, cynicism and wile. And the book's imaginings of, say, what goes on in the innermost sanctums of Tienanmen Square or the proud but demoralized corridors of CIA headquarters seem not so much "ripped from today's headlines" as eerily destined to be set in type for tomorrow's.
Linked in tragedy
Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent Dan Fesperman's more subtle but only marginally less spellbinding "The Amateur Spy" (Knopf, $24.95, 367 pages) covers many of the same themes, setting them in another, still familiar terrain. Fesperman, who long covered the Middle East, tells of two very disparate couples whose fates become entangled through no direct intention of their own.
After decades spent burning out as an aid worker in the world's most dangerous places, internationally respected Freeman Lockhart and wife, Mila, retire to a Greek isle, only to be set upon almost immediately by shadowy thugs, perhaps CIA agents. They threaten to reveal the couple's potentially ruinous secret to the world unless Lockhart flees to Jordan to spy on a close Palestinian friend and former colleague.
Almost simultaneously in Washington, prominent Arab-American Dr. Abbas Rahim, physician to the capital's political and social elite, and wife Aliyah, both of whom are routinely subjected to post-Sept. 11 profiling, are grieving the death of their daughter in London, in an accident Abbas believes was caused by U.S. diplomatic bungling and bigotry. Aliyah rightly comes to believe her seething husband is plotting a massive murderous act of revenge in D.C.
For reasons too complicated (and less implausible than you might think) to outline here, Aliyah eventually encounters the equally distraught Freeman Lockhart in Amman, and these two highly sympathetic amateur spies join forces, tentatively at first, to save hundreds of lives, including their own.
Fesperman ("The Prisoner of Guantanamo"), writes with a journalist's eye for detail ("In the thermal pool of babble known as the Middle East, Amman is the drain into which anything worth repeating eventually swirls ...") and a tragedian's ear for the cadences of human suffering. This is a fascinating, and at times heartbreaking, story.
Sunshine State sleuthing
Switching from the seriously sublime to the agreeably ridiculous, we come upon Tim Dorsey's "Atomic Lobster" (Morrow, $24.95, 340 pages), the 10th in the raucous Florida series featuring stoned-cold conman and amateur sleuth Serge Storms (get it) and his implacably neer-do-well buddy Coleman.
This time the twosome gets involved, potentially fatally, with both a wacko crime clan whose most wacko member is hell bent on mayhem, and a series of vaguely mysterious killings across the Sunshine State that may be part of some shadowy national security plot that is, whatever it is, well beyond Serge's unique but less-than-conventional skill set.
If you prefer the Three Tenors to the Three Stooges, "Atomic Lobster" may not be your flagon of mojito. But if you think strippers, smugglers, gunrunners, duplicitous dowagers and one comely "accidental virgin" all on the same tropical playground might be fun, Dorsey can hook you up.