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Book Review: The Amateur Spy by Dan Fesperman

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One of the hottest flashpoints in the world today is the Middle East. Iraq is, of course, for most Americans, the hottest area. But Iraq is closely followed by the Israel-Jordan-Palestine region, which is where the bulk of Dan Fesperman's The Amateur Spy and the dramatic action takes place. Smaller, but no less important segments of the book take place on a Greek island, and in the Washington, D.C., area.

Another eight years and it will be a century since the longest and bloodiest chapter in modern world history came into being with the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This secret agreement conflicted with an earlier agreement which enlisted the help of the Arabs in World War One, the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence. Sykes-Picot and Hussein-McMahon were both products of diplomatic scrambling by the British government during the darkest of that period of the war. At the risk of oversimplification, the first agreement promised the Arabs certain areas of the Middle East in exchange for their help in Britain’s war against the Axis. Sykes-Picot then promised some of those same areas as a Jewish homeland, in exchange for the assistance of influential Jews in the United States in bringing the US into the war. I want to emphasize that this paragraph is a gross oversimplification, and the Middle East is an area in which you should do your own study, and form your own conclusions, if you’re interested. And considering the number of lives and dollars that area of the world has cost the U.S., and continues to cost and otherwise affect the US and the entire rest of the world, every citizen of planet Earth should be interested.

The events of the past nearly hundred years as briefly described above are the background and basis of The Amateur Spy. They’re not necessary for a thorough enjoyment of a good read, but they do put a lot of things into their proper context and perspective. The book’s beginning and later events also exemplify the words of the poet (John Lennon): “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.”

The novel opens with a couple making a trip to their retirement home on the island of Karos, in the Cyclades, off the coast of Greece. They’re in that home for less than 24 hours when their forced adventure begins, and the husband, Freeman, is un-retired and put to work as a spy. His lack of experience in spying becomes the book’s title and the theme of the story. How he’s forced into spying, what led up to it and what transpires afterward make the main story. There’s also a back story that’s connected to Freeman’s, and it all comes to a dramatic conclusion at — where else? — the end. The adventure, and there’s plenty of it, weaves into and out of the story throughout the book, while intricately and inexorably connecting the two stories and their final intersection.

The Amateur Spy slows down about halfway through; also about the same point the dialogue loses some of its snap, as if the author had a difficult time with it. I feel he could have left out quite a bit in this section, tightened up the remaining narrative, eliminated the unneeded and sometimes clumsy complications in the plot, and had a much more readable and effective story, as well as making the plot and the action unbroken throughout.

Fortunately, Festerman finds his pace and style again, making the last hundred or so pages as fast-paced and dramatic as the first half of the book. Freeman is in over his head a good part of the time, but considering his background, his current predicament, and the complication of his situation, it’s understandable. The twists and turns of the world of international spy games are daunting at times. And as they should, the loose ends tie up neatly at the end.

What’s particularly striking and commendable about The Amateur Spy is that it attempts to give a more balanced view of the Arab-Israeli situation than one is used to seeing in U.S. newspapers and other media. The book doesn’t go into it too heavily, however, which is appropriate for any novel, but it does get into it enough to whet the appetite for more details, which is also appropriate. In today’s U.S. media, the situation is parallel to a situation described in the book. When a person attempts to present a fair and balanced overall picture of the situation in the Middle East, he or she is tabbed as anti-Semitic. Which is ironic in itself, considering that Arabs, too, are descended from Shem, the eldest son of Noah, much to the chagrin of many. Pragmatically, there’s negligible difference between the Sunni-Shiite rift and the Arab-Israeli rift. It’s all about religion, isn’t it?

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