The Amateur Spy

by Dan Fesperman

AMATEUR SPY is one of those novels that at various points leaves a
reader torn between rapidly turning the pages and throwing the book
across the room. By turns intriguing and confounding, it reflects
our time and our world --- neither of which are pretty --- in a
story that is ultimately intriguing but requires one too many leaps
of faith.

Freeman Lockhart wants nothing more than to retire from his
humanitarian aid work and withdraw from the world with his wife
Mila to a small, almost pastoral Greek island. Their idyllic
existence never really gets off the ground; their first night on
the island is interrupted by three men who subject Freeman to a
stiff-legged recruitment pitch for spying on Omar al-Baroody, a
Palestinian with whom Freeman had worked and subsequently
befriended several years before. Omar is ostensibly involved in a
fund-raising project in Jordan to build a much-needed hospital, but
may or may not be tied to something more nefarious. The prod for
Freeman’s cooperation is blackmail; he has a secret that he
has long kept from Mila, supposedly for her own good, and her
continued ignorance is the coin that his mysterious recruiters are
willing to pay.

Freeman is easily --- almost too easily --- able to insert himself
into Omar’s fund-raising operation, where he finds that his
old friend is indeed involved in things above and beyond
humanitarian causes. Yet Freeman himself is in way over his head;
he is caught between factions, governmental and otherwise, with his
every move scrutinized by shadowy figures who seem to be operating
at cross-purposes to each other.

Meanwhile, in a Washington, D.C. suburb, Abbas Rahim, a prominent
Palestinian-American surgeon and his wife Aliyah continue working
through the grief occasioned by the accidental death of their
daughter one year ago. Abbas blames, somewhat improbably, the
post-9/11 posture of the United States government and, inspired by
a radio report of a terrorist act abroad, cooks up a bloody revenge
of his own. Aliyah, horrified by her husband’s plot, is
determined to stop him. So she travels to Jordan for the apparent
purpose of acquiring the expertise that Abbas needs to carry out
his misguided revenge. Aliyah finds, however, that her actions have
only served to clear the way for Abbas to execute his plan.
Aliyah’s path barely, almost imperceptibly, intersects with
Freeman’s. Yet it may or may not be enough to prevent the
occurrence of Abbas’s plan, which, if successful, will
dramatically change the complexion of world politics.

Dan Fesperman’s writing continues to be compelling. But where
THE AMATEUR SPY gets snagged is upon the motives of its principal
characters. The event that Freeman so desperately wishes to keep
secret from his wife (which I am deliberately not revealing), while
a horrible one, ultimately has little to do with their actions and
everything to do with those of the terrorists. It is a stretch, to
say the least, to hold the Lockharts accountable in any way. The
irony of the book --- Freeman, pressed into service to spy on a
relatively innocent player, inadvertently uncovers a much larger,
more significant plot and cannot get anyone to listen --- is almost
lost in the conclusion, which keeps several loose threads dangling
in the wind.

Perhaps that is the point of the novel: in the Middle East, nothing
is resolved or concluded --- there is merely a succession of
events. The ultimate strength of THE AMATEUR SPY, however, is the
manner in which Lockhart, a fish out of water, manages to survive
in a very dangerous land.


Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010

The Amateur Spy
by Dan Fesperman

  • Publication Date: September 14, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0375414738
  • ISBN-13: 9780375414732