William F. Buckley Jr. wrote a successful series of espionage thrillers about Blackford Oakes, a CIA agent. Now National Review editor Rich Lowry (together with his friend Keith Korman) has leaped into the same genre pool, with Banquo’s Ghosts.
One of the hallmarks of the Blackford Oakes series was the author’s quirky and effective practice of mingling real-life characters with his fictional creations. Lowry and Korman do the same thing, with one significant difference: While Buckley’s historical figures often were of gigantic significance in the second half of the 20th century, Lowry and Korman’s are intellectual and philosophical pygmies. It is virtually impossible, after all, to make caricatures of the intellectually challenged Larry King, the relentlessly inept Chris Matthews, the accuracy-handicapped Seymour Hersh, and the emperor of smug bloviation, Keith Olbermann. (It is to Lowry’s credit that Olbermann once named him “the worst person in the world.”)
Like all good fiction, Banquo’s Ghosts is about more than it seems to be at first glance. As a pure thriller, though, it’s a doozy. Here’s the plot: A rogue CIA agent reaches the conclusion that the only way to stop Iran’s dream of producing nuclear warheads is to eliminate the one scientist mainly responsible for developing the program. What may seem an extreme action to some is merely agent Stewart Bancroft’s solution to what has been treated as an insurmountable problem by the rest of the world. Bancroft runs a tiny office in Rockefeller Center for the CIA. He has taken the undercover name Stewart Banquo and, with his indomitable associate, Robert Wallets, he understands his mission is to win the war. It doesn’t matter which war, and it matters even less what methods are employed to achieve the goal. Banquo is a real spy, he has been in real wars, and he has used every kind of agent to help him. These agents are his ghosts.
The man he plans to use to assassinate the irreplaceable Iranian nuclear scientist is Peter Johnson, an extreme-left journalist, a drunk who is as corrupt as he is dissolute, so foul that he could pollute the water upstream. Lowry and Korman devote numerous passages to Johnson’s media interviews — and these will be infuriating to intelligent readers, because they are so pitch-perfectly accurate that they can pass for verbatim transcripts from the MSNBC/CBS/PBS echo chamber. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks on New York, Johnson’s editor at The Crusader (a magazine funded by George Soros) asks him to write 750 words on why America is so hateable. (One of his friends is writing a hit piece on the American-flag pin: “the McCarthyism of America’s lapels, disgracing the country’s jackets with a simulacrum of patriotism.”)
On Larry King Live, he is introduced as the “daring” journalist who has visited Iran to report on its attempts to become a nuclear power. Asked how he’s being treated, he responds, “Fine. I think they’re glad to have someone listening to them for once.” When pressed about “nuke or no nuke,” Johnson replies: “Unequivocally, no nuke, Larry. . . . This is another put-on, another confabulation by the same people who always lust after another good war.”
For a brief moment, I thought the authors had overdone Johnson’s liberal rhetoric, that it had become parody. Then I happened to pick up a copy of Time magazine — and, sure enough, there was a column by Patrick Leahy, calling for an investigation and, it was abundantly clear, also hoping for a prosecution of members of the last administration for “the abuses of the Bush years.” (The article was accompanied by yet another photo of Abu Ghraib.) In the same issue, there was Joe Klein’s usual fair and measured column, this one about global reaction to Obama being “euphoric” and how much better relations are with the Muslim world than they were during the Bush years. I searched as meticulously as a chimpanzee looking for fleas for a single paragraph anywhere in the magazine with an alternative point of view, without success.
I returned to the novel, chastened.
Banquo and Wallets are able to convince Johnson to undertake the dangerous mission into Iran, mainly because of his love for his daughter, Giselle, who was so horrified and confused when she watched the Twin Towers crack open and crumble, asking him “Why did they do this? Why?” The question, perhaps for the first time in his worthless life, gave him pause.
Because of his non-stop berating of America, Johnson is the only journalist given access to Iran’s nuclear facilities (for peaceful purposes, of course), with the expectation that the ensuing journalism will prove to the free world that no threat exists except in the jingoistic minds of a few of America’s leaders. Inevitably, when an amateur tries to play a professional’s game, it’s bound to go terribly wrong, and it does.
A lot happens but, since this is a plot-driven thriller, you won’t find out what it is here. Suffice it to say that Banquo is more interested in victory than in following the standard CIA manual for castratos, America’s nightmarish little gift from Jimmy Carter, his CIA chief, Stansfield Turner, and Sen. Frank Church — men who somehow thought it was a good idea to eviscerate the agency, downsizing it by 800 field operatives, and then were surprised when Iranian “students” invaded the U.S. embassy in Iran. Bureaucrats always despise men of action, so naturally Banquo’s superior (let me rephrase that — his boss) in Washington hated the idea of taking out the scientist because it was illegal, because it didn’t follow procedure, and because he hated Banquo.
Banquo and Wallets are competent, handsome, courageous, moral Americans — heroic figures who could have been fashioned by Ayn Rand — and it is to be hoped that they will make further appearances. They are the type of men who used to play the lead roles in World War II movies, when Hollywood was still on America’s side.
The authors of Banquo’s Ghosts have a clarity of vision that has been lacking in much espionage fiction since the conclusion of World War II. For years, only the great Charles McCarry eschewed the moral ambivalence so prevalent in the work of such otherwise talented authors as John le Carré and Graham Greene, both of whom considered their native England every bit as guilty of despicable acts as its enemy, the Soviet Union. Such American writers as James Grady (Six Days of the Condor, in which the CIA callously murders a group of its own operatives in order to keep a secret) and David Ignatius (Body of Lies, in which every American is shown to be hopelessly stupid or corrupt) were no less tainted by moral equivalency.
Fortunately, the literary pendulum has recently swung back to a more patriotic vision, or at least a more honest one, in the works of such bestselling authors as Vince Flynn, Stephen Hunter, Andrew Klavan, and Brad Thor.
Let’s face it: Being asked to review a book co-authored by the editor of National Review for National Review is a tough assignment. What a relief it was to learn that, despite some of the repetition and rhetorical excess (though excess can be exhilarating, because it prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of habit), Banquo’s Ghosts is a true thriller — a fine novel by authors who understand the difference between good and evil and are unashamed to take a position on the side of the former.
– Mr. Penzler is an editor and publisher of mystery fiction, and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.