A new CIA think tank named “Red Cell” was created in the hours following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers. The idea behind Red Cell was and is to take an out-of-the-box approach when considering issues of geopolitical import. Mark Henshaw is a former member of that think tank, and it shows in this smart, scary, edge-of-your-seat debut thriller that will keep you up all night reading and worrying.
"RED CELL has it all. If you like tales of espionage, this book is loaded with clandestine moves, real-world tradecraft, and incidents that ring so true that it’s hard to believe they passed the vetting process. If military thrillers are your thing, this novel provides plenty of red meat."
RED CELL begins when a meeting in Caracas, Venezuela between a CIA agent and an intelligence asset goes off the rails. The agent is a rookie CIA case officer named Kyra Stryker; she is extracted from the snafu safely, but with injuries. While still recuperating, she is brought back to Langley and assigned to Red Cell by CIA Director Kathy Cooke. Stryker is paired with the think tank’s only other member, a brilliant but extremely eccentric analyst named Jonathan Burke, whose unorthodox research methods and approaches, combined with his offsetting personality and the fact that he’s always right, tend to alienate almost everyone. Remember the kid who constructed the great things out of Legos in kindergarten, but wouldn’t let anyone else play with them? That was Burke.
Oddly enough, Stryker and Burke hit it off. Stryker is secure enough in her own abilities, which consist of reading people and reacting to their expressions, to appreciate Burke’s results, his abrasiveness notwithstanding. Burke senses a wide and deep intelligence in Stryker that might equal his own, even if it manifests itself in different ways.
The Red Cell team quickly gets their baptism by fire when a team of spies from mainland China is apprehended and incarcerated in Taiwan. The mainland Chinese use the incident as a reason for initiating the long-feared invasion of Taiwan, notwithstanding its alliance with the United States. The CIA has no idea why China no longer fears the threat of reprisal by the U.S. Navy. Its only chance of discovering the why of it all is a CIA intelligence asset in the highest levels of the Chinese government; codenamed Pioneer, he is under suspicion and surveillance by the Chinese government. Stryker is assigned to walk point on a mission to extract Pioneer from China and find out what he knows before he is arrested and executed by his own government, and before the world is brought to the brink of another world war.
RED CELL has it all. If you like tales of espionage, this book is loaded with clandestine moves, real-world tradecraft, and incidents that ring so true that it’s hard to believe they passed the vetting process. If military thrillers are your thing, this novel provides plenty of red meat. When and if China ever invades Taiwan, it’s hard to imagine the attack occurring in any way other than the manner in which it’s described here. As exciting as the plot and execution may be, however, the chemistry --- and subtle relationship triangle --- that is slowly formed among Stryker, Burke and Cooke is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Burke, especially, is an extremely riveting character, a wise guy in a number of different ways who is always on the brink of a revelation. Stryker is an extremely capable agent whose inexperience is balanced by a skill set that is partially inherent and partially acquired. And Cooke? She sensed a good fit and brought them together, and is now tasked with riding herd on them or setting them loose, and being wise enough to know when to do either.
Henshaw’s vision is cinematic in presentation. One could see it as a television series that has a chance to be almost as good as the book and, hopefully, its successors.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 1, 2012