I went into Lauren Wilkinson‘s American Spy (2018) hoping to come away with a great new female spy fiction writer to add to my reading arsenal. Leaving it, I’m convinced I’ve found one—provided she decides to continue in the genre. This stirring debut is quite unique and memorable, but I could easily see the author setting her sights on other genres. Either way, I’ll be watching with interest.
Set in the mid-eighties to early nineties, American Spy follows the intelligence career of Marie Mitchell, an ambitious young agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Marie has a tough hill to climb in the FBI; she’s a black woman in the largely male, white world of U.S. intelligence. Marie gets an opportunity, however, when she’s tapped for an important undercover assignment: getting close to and sussing out information from one Thomas Sankara, the new, charismatic young leader of Burkina Faso. Sankara is in New York to deliver a speech to the United Nations, and the American intelligence community is keen to gather intelligence from him, concerned that the African nation may be the next communist domino to fall. A skeptical Marie takes the assignment, on her own terms at first, but it leads down a precarious and tragic path.
While saddled with a barbed but bland title, American Spy is a compelling, distinctive period piece, a nonlinear puzzler propelled by a confident voice and a refreshing milieu. Conventional spy fiction can too often feel like “more of the same,” but Wilkinson takes the genre in sorely needed new directions, examining similar themes of high-stakes geopolitics and institutional rot, but injecting them with new tensions around race, gender, and ideology. Marie’s journey is a dark, troubled one, as she sets out to serve and protect a country that doesn’t always have her best interests at heart, but ultimately she leaves the reader with a stark, incisive, and powerful message.