Fiction, History, Spies

Anthology: Agents of Treachery, Edited by Otto Penzler

November 22, 2010

When I think of spy fiction, I think novels. Evidently, so do most writers of spy fiction. Agents of Treachery (2010) is a rarity: an anthology of short fiction focused on spies and international intrigue. According to editor Otto Penzler, in fact, it is the only anthology of original spy fiction ever put together. His introduction argues that there’s a good reason for this: mainly, it’s damn hard to do short spy fiction well. His argument is compelling; his counter argument, it turns out, is this anthology, which is filled with effective work.

Only a handful of its selections disappoint. Joseph Finder’s “Neighbors,” for example, sets itself up as a perils of paranoia morality tale, as a right-wing architect worries over his new, dark-skinned neighbors; after deliberately withholding information for a while, this one resolves with a real cheat of a twist. Lee Child’s “Section 7(a) Operational” competently depicts the formation of a special ops team, only to resolve with a recursive metafictional punchline. “Destiny City” by James Grady chaotically depicts an agent’s undercover penetration of an al Qaeda cell in Washington, D.C. — good ideas here, but it feels too hastily executed, like a novel-length plot cramming itself into story form. And Stella Rimington, the only author in the volume whose work I’m familiar with, contributes a humdrum character study in “Hedged In,” another fear-thy-neighbor story with an unsympathetic narrator who misreads his wife’s behavior and stumbles into an MI-5 operation. These stories basically accomplish the goals they set for themelves, but generally fail to impress.

By and large, though, Agents of Treachery delivers enjoyable cloak and dagger stuff, an impressive sampler. The middle ranks for me included Charles McCarry, who opens the collection with “The End of the String,” a hard-hitting account of a coup d’etat in a small African nation in the 1950s as viewed through the eyes of a CIA field agent. In “Father’s Day,” John Weisman executes an authentic contemporary yarn about a tough paramilitary operative in Iraq on a dangerous mission tracking down a terrorist cell in a war zone; good, strong stuff, which resolves with an effective reversal. Gayle Lynds’ “Max is Calling,” though it telegraphs its ending, is an otherwise effective tale with a classic trenchcoat atmosphere; it’s about an eager young recruit’s first field assignment in Vienna, where he’s shown the ropes by a crafty old CIA hand. David Morrell’s highly political “The Interrogator” chillingly examines the use of sensory assault interrogation in the war on the terror, through the eyes of an intelligence officer uniquely positioned to tell truth from lies; somewhat pedantic, but powerfully so. Interrogation also rears its ugly head in “The Hamburg Redemption” by Robert Wilson, an interesting mystery about an agent who awakens in a German hotel room and gradually pieces together how he got there; though the payoff doesn’t quite match the build-up, overall it makes for an entertaining read.

Finally, on to the five standout stories. Andrew Klavan’s “Sleeping with My Assassin” is politically provocative stuff, turning the Russian sleeper agent meme on its ear. A network of deep cover moles in the US, orphaned by the Soviet collapse, is unexpectedly activated by mysterious means, and one agent copes with conflicting motivations in an edgy story combining traditional spycraft with opinionated geopolitical themes. Dan Fesperman’s “The Courier” is an engaging WWII historical about American agents in Switzerland, who use stranded Air Force pilots to smuggle intelligence from neutral territory back to the Allies via tense prisoner exchanges with the Germans. Their callous plan to feed misinformation to the enemy has expectedly tragic results.

“East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road” by John Lawton brings some welcome comic relief to the volume, a clever historical farce about a hapless, low-grade army officer who tries to jazz up his career with a move to military intelligence; his efforts fail, but by chance he stumbles into intrigue when mistakenly targeted in a Russian honey trap. Flawlessly paced and fun, this one ends rather happily, a nice change of pace from the deadly seriousness of many of the other offerings. Also providing some humor is the ultmately darker “Casey at the Bat” by Stephen Hunter, a military actioner about a team of Allied spies and French resistance fighters in Normandy whose mission is to take out a bridge on the night before D-Day. This one clicks along briskly, a funny, complex, and exciting historical with an authentic feel for the era.

Fittingly, Penzler ends the volume with Olen Steinhauer’s deeply impressive “You Know What’s Going On,” an amazingly complicated experiment in form. It opens detailing a clever CIA operation to feed funds to a jihadist network, in order to backtrace the money to new leads. But as the story progresses — ricocheting backwards through time, from Geneva to Rome to Kenya — it changes point-of-view characters, and each new viewpoint paints a different picture of what’s really happening, backfilling info to illuminate what came before. It’s an impressive formal exercise, but also works on a pure story level, deft, intelligent, and intense. It rounds out a rich volume of thoroughly entertaining spy fiction, that’s left me with plenty of leads to follow up for future reading.

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