Novel: The Director by David Ignatius

David Ignatius’ The Director (2014) feels like a classic Cold War spy novel that got run over by the twenty-first century. With an old-school feel rendered more urgent and chaotic by the shifting realities of modern technology, it tells the story of Graham Weber, a billionaire tech CEO who’s also a patriot, and the unlikely pick to be the new Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Weber doesn’t know the spy business, but he does know information security, and he arrives at CIA headquarters geared up to leverage his experience in business leadership against the problems of an entrenched, ineffective service. His skills are immediately challenged when a paranoid hacker reaches out with a startling revelation: the CIA’s isolated networks have been penetrated, possibly by an inside source. Weber confronts this dilemma, and the associated threats to national security, with an outsider’s mix of enthusiasm, naivety, and guile, soon coming to realize that the problems of the agency are far more thorny and intractable than he ever imagined.

Ignatius’ accessible writing style mixes nicely with the requisite plot contortions of the spy puzzler, and he speaks with an authentic voice about the geography and complex politics of Washington. While the novel feels like classic spy fiction—with a mole hunt at its core, and a retinue of angling espiocrats in the cast—it’s also very timely, with a focus on information security, renegade hackers, the looming threat of financial crisis, and data breaches of scandalous secrets. Alas, another attribute it shares with old-school spy fare is its male-heavy, racially homogenous cast; while its sparse female cast is drawn reasonably well, the novel’s one major black character is handled with an egregious lack of nuance. It’s an unfortunate drawback to an otherwise gripping read that possesses convincing intelligence world mystique and out-of-the-headlines subject matter. Most fans of the genre won’t be disappointed.

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