At the end of the year, when I compile my private list of the books that pleasantly surprised me the most, THE FAITHFUL SPY by Alex Berenson will be at the top. Berenson is a reporter for the New York Times and his embedded dispatches, as of this writing, have not made me feel particularly warm and fuzzy toward him. Having said that, you must believe me when I tell you that this is one of the most compelling works of fiction I have picked up this year.
CIA agent John Wells is the focus of the book, so strong a figure that he haunts each and every page even when the action shifts away from him. Wells is the only CIA agent ever to have successfully infiltrated al Qaeda, a dubious distinction made even more so by his inability to learn of, and accordingly prevent, the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Wells's superiors have their doubts about him, thanks to his conversion to Islam, his long periods (which stretch into years) of failing to report in, and various other factors.
All involved are abruptly put to the test when Omar Khadri, a twisted yet brilliant al Qaeda mastermind, orders Wells to leave his hiding place in the hills of Afghanistan and return to the United States to await further orders. Wells comes back to an extremely suspicious CIA that is sorely tempted to pull him in. His one supporter is Jennifer Exley, his immediate superior who is as suspicious of her own motives in supporting Wells as her colleagues are of Wells himself. Meanwhile, Wells waits to hear from Khadri, trying to blend into a culture that seems somehow familiar yet alien.
Berenson's chronicle of Wells's return is a superlative in a novel full of them. If you don't think that much has happened in American culture over the past several years, Berenson sets you straight by looking at it through the eyes of someone who has been gone and missed such things as... Well, you'll have to read THE FAITHFUL SPY and see for yourself, since I'm not about to spoil Berenson's brilliant work and your fun of discovery. When Wells finally gets the call, he finds that the more he learns about Khadri's plot, the less he seems to know. For Khadri has fashioned a complex, devious and apparently unstoppable terrorist attack designed to bring the U.S. to its knees.
Berenson is frightening here. His over-the-shoulder look at terrorist plotting gives an immediacy to THE FAITHFUL SPY that makes the reader feel as if he is a participant, rather than an observer, in the action. Even more striking, however, is the attack that Berenson so flawlessly presents here. One cannot read this book without feeling that when the next terrorist attack comes, it will be in the form of the nature that Berenson so calculatingly describes. Put THE FAITHFUL SPY at the top of your must-read list.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011