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The CIA is on a real-life recruitment drive for clandestine officers. Advertisements promise applicants risk and adventure, as well as a chance to serve their country. They don’t mention the likelihood of undertaking a perilous, legally questionable mission, and being dumped if it all goes wrong.
For Michael Dunne, protagonist of David Ignatius’s enthralling new thriller The Paladin (WW Norton, RRP$27.95), abandonment by the agency is just the start. His family life collapses, his intimate secrets are blasted across the internet and he is imprisoned.
Ignatius, a prizewinning columnist for The Washington Post, has covered the intelligence beat for almost 40 years. The Paladin feels completely authentic, from the inside of the CIA’s headquarters to operational tradecraft — and the rush to disown Dunne as the bureaucrats scurry for cover.
Dunne is a sympathetic, engaging hero: brave, resourceful and in love with his ravishing Brazilian wife. His task is to infiltrate an Italian internet news organisation that is pushing the boundaries of deepfakes to new and disturbing limits. But the hackers are wary of his lavish coding gifts, and Dunne has a roving eye, for which he and his wife must pay a terrible price.
The narrative is finely engineered, switching back and forth between an account of Dunne’s fall and his revenge mission. Beyond the cracking storytelling, there are more profound, even biblical themes: of redemption, justice and a beautifully planned vengeance. Ignatius’s skilfully layered tale makes The Paladin stand out in a crowded field.
In Tade Thompson’s Making Wolf (Constable, RRP£8.99), Weston Kogi is a less upstanding but equally engaging protagonist. Kogi, a London store detective, returns to his roots in west Africa for his aunt’s funeral. It’s a lively affair, with music, dancers and vast amounts of food and drink. But underneath the mourning runs an undercurrent of menace. Churchill, the sociopathic school bully, is now a high-ranking militia commander and very keen to talk to his old schoolmate when Kogi claims to be an actual homicide detective.
As (bad) luck would have it, Churchill is seeking an investigator to find out who killed Papa Busi, a local political leader. Kogi is soon drugged, kidnapped and taken to the rebel headquarters, where he witnesses a prisoner being brutally executed. Not surprisingly, he accepts the assignment. Soon after, he is abducted by a rival militia, also seeking answers about Papa Busi.
Every thriller demands a personal quest, and setting up two in opposition to each other is a neat twist. Luckily, Nana, Kogi’s girlfriend, last seen 15 years earlier, is ready to pick up where she and Kogi left off. Now a one-woman essay factory for lazy students, with a fast car and a thorough understanding of the local area, she proves a brave and sassy ally — until she disappears.
The fictional country of Alcacia is vividly, lovingly drawn with no blemishes spared: its “blinding retina-shattering sunlight”, breathtaking landscapes and intoxicating food and drink. So too is the intensity of human relations: endemic corruption, sultry sexuality and casual, slapdash violence.
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Thompson, a British writer of Yoruba ancestry and winner of the 2019 Arthur C Clarke award for his science fiction novel Rosewater, brings a rock-and-roll edge to the story as Kogi manoeuvres every which way to profit and survive. Thompson is also sharp on the international development industry. When Kogi sees children at the rebel camp toting guns, he asks if they are child soldiers. Publicity only, replies Churchill. “It impresses the white people and gets funding . . . It’s like printing money.” The story clips along at a pace, until Kogi is in way too deep.
In John Lawton’s Hammer to Fall (Grove Press UK, RRP£16.99) MI6 officer Joe Wilderness is also a wide-boy with a mission. It’s 1966 and while London is swinging, Wilderness is not. Instead he has been exiled to neutral Finland under cover of working for the British Council, where he travels the country showing Carry On films. That is, until Kostya, his old Russian black-market contact from postwar Berlin appears.
Kostya wants Wilderness to supply him with black-market hooch — there is a vodka shortage in Russia. Wilderness agrees, in exchange for Soviet classified documents that have been used as toilet paper. The deal smells in more ways than one, and Wilderness is soon in trouble. Lawton’s latest is an entertaining read, with an intelligent backdrop of cold-war geopolitics.
Adam LeBor is author of the Yael Azoulay spy series
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