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Disappointing Spy Books (Class 11 and The Kill Artist)

May 19, 2008

Jennifer Garner played a kick-ass spy in AliasMy dad periodically tries to convince me to join the CIA. I’m not sure if he just thinks that it’d be really cool to have a spy daughter, or if he suffers from a delusion that I’m secretly Jennifer Garner, but every once in awhile, I have to explain to him that while I love my country, I’m not interested in living in the secretive, morally ambigious world that our Central Intelligence Agency inhabits.

On the other hand, I certainly don’t mind reading about it every once in awhile! Lately, I’ve given two spy books a shot, but neither has really lived up to expectations. (Those of you who keep complaing I’m lengthening your TBR lists can breathe a big sigh of relief right now!)

The first is a memoir by TJ Waters called Class 11. Waters was in the first CIA training class after 9/11, and the book is a memoir of his year-long training experience. I saw it The original Bond, James Bond.in Barnes & Noble, and it looked interesting, so I came home and bookmooched it. Here’s the thing: the actual descriptions of the training were really interesting. I learned that as a baby spy, I’d have to wander around D.C. and the surrounding area, trying to determine if I had a tail, mark out places where I could shake off my tail without arousing suspicision, and generally do all the things you see in Cold War films. I also learned, as I had already suspected, that those going into covert ops cannot tell anyone but their immediate families, so even your parents and best friends think you’re either working for another area of the government or a fake civilian corporation set up by the CIA. Too bad: if I ever decided to act my dad’s advice, he wouldn’t know about it. Anyway, all of these tidbits were just fascinating! The part that wasn’t so fascinating was Waters himself. You know how, in every college frat, there’s that one guy who seems determined to live up to every stereotype of a fraternity brother? I have a sneaking suspicision TJ (see! even the name!) was that guy. So to learn all of the interesting CIA stuff, I had to put up with this ageing (the oldest in his class), whining, somewhat bizarre (when he and his newly married wife have an argument over how it sucks for her to be living alone in Florida and trying to sell the house right at the start of their marriage, TJ’s idea of a reconciliation is to send her an e-mail about a Pakistani teenage girl sentenced by a court to gang-rape; because in his view, he joined the CIA to stop that), very cocky narrator. And for me, that was ok: the writing was nothing special, but it moved fast. For other people, though, who aren’t as curious about how modern-day spies are trained, they should probably pass this one up. You won’t find any deep analysis or self-awareness here. And what really bothered me is that TJ is no longer with the CIA; the book was published in 2006, and TJ’s training began in 2002, so he was barely in the CIA at all, which I find sketchy. Nevertheless, the book provides detailed descriptions of training stuff, including six months at The Farm, so I’m glad that I read it.

The newest James Bond, and my personal favourite.The other spy book was fiction: Daniel Silva’s The Kill Artist. I checked this one out from the library because Nancy Pearl recommended it. I absolutely love John le Carre, whom Pearl also listed, so I thought it was worth a shot. Unfortunately, Silva has created spy/assassin that has one of my number one pet peeves: the ability to pass as a perfect native in multiple languages. Having studied various languages, and having known a bunch of other people who studied languages, it really amuses me when fictional spies effortlessly speak seven or eight languages. In fact, I usually start laughing uncontrollably, thus ruining the whole ‘spy tension’ aspect of it. Then, there was the uncomfortable issue of politics: the Kill Artist himself (Gabriel) is an Israeli, and he comes out of retirement to take out a Palestinian terrorist for the Israeli government. I happen to be one of those people that doesn’t support either side unconditionally, and I didn’t like the way the conflict was portrayed in the book at all. I’m not going to go into it further than that, because I don’t like talking politics on this blog, but unless you’re a one-hundred-percent Israeli supporter, this book might make your eyebrows raise. And then, Silva introduced my other favourite spy cliche: the beautiful model-slash-secret-agent, who is outwardly tough but is really just looking for the right man to save her. Wanna guess how she gets information out of the terrorists? Oh, and did I mention Gabriel is also the world’s leading art restorer? Because you know, that allows Silva to make painful, drawn-out comparisons between how a good art restorer fixes a painting while making it look like he was never there, kind of like how a good assassin is invisible. I’d share passages, but I had to return the book to the library and forgot to type them out first. Needless to say, I wouldn’t recommend this, and I won’t be looking into the rest of the series.

Does anyone have any good spy authors to recommend? I love le Carre’s Cold War stuff, and I really liked McEwan’s The Innocent, so I guess spy novels where the spy isn’t a superman (a la Jason Bourne) is what I’m after. I’ve heard good things about Alan Furst: anyone given him a go?

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2008 7:28 am

    The memoir sounds pretty interesting. I don’t know why I never thought to look up books on this subject. It fascinates me!

  2. toujoursjacques permalink
    May 19, 2008 11:41 am

    Eva—if you haven’t read Ken Follett, I’d definitely give him a go. My favorite is The Eye of the Needle (absolutely gripping!); and it was made into a pretty good film (starring Donald Sutherland).

  3. May 19, 2008 1:47 pm

    Eric Ambler. He is not as good as le Carre at his best, but still lots of fun If you like realistic cold war spy stories he should fit the bill. A Cofffin for Dimetrios is probably his best but I’ve enjoyed all of his books. He is my perfect summer airplane read. I never travel to Europe without him. ;-)

    If you’ve never read Graham Greene’s, Our Man in Havana you might want to check it out. It is a spy novel, but it’s also a satire of spy novels. I thought it was very funny.

    I was also disappointed with The Kill Artist. Who wants a lesson on art restoration in the middle of a cold war thriller, anyway?

  4. adevotedreader permalink
    May 19, 2008 2:29 pm

    The only spy fiction I’ve really read is by John Le Carre. But I’ve heard about, and intend to read some day, The Game by Rudyard Kipling, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, The Untouchable by John Banville (based on the Cambridge spies) and Lee Deighton.

  5. May 19, 2008 6:05 pm

    I second the recommendations of Ken Follett and Len Deighton. I think the Bernie Sampson series’ are wonderful — see titles, here:

    http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/d/len-deighton/

    As to real-life spy stories, I read something that sounds very similar — Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Agent by Lindsay Moran. It sounds very much like Class 11. She described her training and her work, which comprised a whopping 5 years of her life. And, she was very, very whiny. The book was extremely disappointing.

  6. May 19, 2008 6:10 pm

    Spy novels – full of cliches? Say it ain’t so!! I’m sure that its quite easy to become fluent in at least 15 languages.

  7. May 20, 2008 10:53 am

    Andi, glad I’m not the only one!

    Toujours Jacques, I’ve read Follet’s Pillars of the Eart, but that’s it. I”ll definitely look into his spy fiction now!

    CB James, great! I have read some Graham Greene (and I’m a big fan), so I’ll put Our Man in Havana on the list too. :D

    A Devoted Reader, thanks for the list-I’l look into these!

    Nancy, yay for recommendations. :) At least Waters wasn’t super-whiny; I think I”ll avoid Blowing My Cover.

    Kim L, lol! Don’t judge a whole genre! j/k And I know I wake up every day just magically speaking a new language…

  8. May 6, 2010 10:12 am

    Try Robert Ludlum. The Bourne Identity is a wonderful book.

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