One cannot help but come to the conclusion that Alex Berenson keeps raising and then exceeding his own standards with each novel. His protagonist, a highly capable intelligence operative with the simple but memorable name of John Wells, has evolved and developed a bit, personally and professionally, with each succeeding book, the result being that the reader never really knows exactly what to expect will happen by story’s end. This is particularly true of THE COUNTERFEIT AGENT, the eighth and latest in the series.
"There is so much suspense that reading it made my teeth hurt. That’s a first for me. The plot is also one of his most complex, yet he is so adept at presenting it that there isn’t any point at which the reader feels lost or adrift in the sea of what is happening."
One of my favorite elements of these novels is the manner in which Berenson infuses each page with an in-the-room view of how the proactive and reactive elements of foreign policy are set and ultimately executed. We get that in spades here, from the Oval Office to governmental offices that do not officially exist and are used exclusively for come-to-Jesus meetings, considered to be the last step before a forced retirement. That is not to say that THE COUNTERFEIT AGENT is chock full of the tense minutiae of office meetings. Hardly. Berenson gets a number of plot plates spinning immediately, if slowly, starting with a quietly portentous meeting in South Africa and moving on to a vacation cruise in the Atlantic Ocean where what is intended to be an event-changing moment in Wells’s life is just that, though not in the way he planned. Things build quickly from there, however.
A CIA station chief is contacted by an enigmatic but seemingly reliable source from deep within the Iran Revolutionary Guard about a series of attacks and actions against the United States and one of its closest allies. When three of the actions are carried out, the veracity of the source --- a man known only as “Reza” --- is all but confirmed. There is a remaining one, however, that is of most concern. Reza reveals that the government of Iran is much closer to developing a nuclear weapon than the U.S. realizes and, worse, is embarking on a program to smuggle components of dirty bombs into the U.S. for assembly in various cities.
Wells is tasked with tracing the team behind the initial attacks and hopefully stopping the remainder of the plan in its tracks. It is a mission that takes him to Guatemala, Thailand and Istanbul, among other places, and puts him up against ticking clocks that are both professional and personal. He succeeds in his mission, the threat of a world war is averted, and best of all, Wells gets the girl, all in less than 400 pages. Except that is not what happens. Not quite, anyway. Along the way, Berenson gives the reader enough action, suspense and explosions to fill three books, yet it’s not enough. More on that in a second.
I am not kidding when I say that THE COUNTERFEIT AGENT is Berenson’s best book to date. There is so much suspense that reading it made my teeth hurt. That’s a first for me. The plot is also one of his most complex, yet he is so adept at presenting it that there isn’t any point at which the reader feels lost or adrift in the sea of what is happening. That is a difficult task to pull off, but Berenson does it and very well. Be warned, however: the end of the book is not the end of the story. While THE COUNTERFEIT AGENT is complete in itself, the conclusion indicates that the next installment in the John Wells canon will begin where this one ends. It’s going to be a tough wait, but I have the feeling it will be worth it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 14, 2014