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Jack in the Box

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I recently watched The Bourne Supremacy, the second film in the big-screen adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s best-selling trilogy about amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum). The films bear little resemblance to the books whose name they share, other than the essential premise of a man who can’t remember who he was, and isn’t sure he’ll like the answers when he finds them. But Ludlum’s books were frantic caricatures of the Cold War, pitting his illusory assassin against the supposed “most dangerous man alive,” Carlos the Jackal, in a chaotic maze of action and exclamation points (most of Ludlum’s characters spent a considerable amount of time yelling and/or screaming, depending upon gender).

The films, however, took the concept and shaped it for our post-Cold War times, positing Bourne as a real assassin with real emotional baggage, not just illusions. Despite the occasional action set-piece, they are ultimately far more realistic (in theme and characterization) than their sources. Which brings me, in a rather round about way, I admit, to the subject of this review: John Weisman’s new spy thriller, Jack in the Box. Much like the Bourne films, or the works of John Le Carre, or perhaps even the Robert Redford film Three Days of the Condor (itself inspired by a book), Weisman’s spies are detailed, layered, intriguing characters lost in the byzantine world of international “black ops.”

Jack in the Box is the story of former CIA Moscow station chief Sam Waterman, now retired and cut adrift by the agency after a period in “Purgatory” because of his insistence that the CIA had been infiltrated at the highest levels by Russian moles. He meets a friend for a drink, and that drink turns into the first step down a dark tunnel of deception: legendary traitor Edward Lee Howard, the only CIA operative to ever defect to the KGB, allegedly wants to come home. In fact, as Waterman learns, Howard is already on U.S. soil, hiding out at the home of a U.S. senator, and he wants to talk to Sam.

As Waterman “debriefs” the traitor, Howard unleashes a number of startling allegations, including that the White House knew about the September 11 attacks beforehand, and that American intelligence, distracted by the “war on terror,” has in fact been penetrated by double agents. Waterman is suspicious; he thinks Howard may be playing a game, but he isn’t certain what it is. Before Waterman can verify any of the information (or obtain “paper” from Howard which would back up his claims), Howard disappears and is subsequently killed in Moscow.

Waterman embarks upon an ambitious campaign from Moscow to Paris and back to Washington, D.C. in an effort to find out the truth behind Howard’s claims. As he hurtles through the breathtaking maze of conflicting information (and misinformation), people continue to die all around him, and soon his life is threatened as well. His only hope: to find out enough to confront the enemy agents on their own terms. If he can find out who they are in time.

There’s a lot to like about Jack in the Box. For starters, there’s the level of detail in terms of “tradecraft,” the techniques used by spies world-wide. Weisman, a former journalist and writes a “Black Ops” column for Military.com, has researched the intelligence community extensively, and it shows on the pages of this novel. He manages to skillfully weave the exposition into the narrative, striving for authenticity but managing to avoid overkill. I felt like this was a book far more interested in the reality of intelligence than in the gung-ho comic book antics of Arnold Schwartzenegger in, say, True Lies (or even everybody’s favorite spy, James Bond). This is no comic book, and Sam Waterman is no comic book hero: he’s a forty-nine year old guy, involuntarily retired from the CIA, more supervisor and analyst than action hero. But the research pays off: you can clearly see how Waterman is able to do what he does as a spy, whereas often in the world of comic book heroes it is far more difficult to see how they succeed. Even in The Bourne Supremacy, for example, one has to wonder why Jason Bourne never bothered to wear a disguise. Such things are an innate component of any real spy’s bag of tricks, and Weisman’s protagonist uses everything at his disposal in his search for answers.

The characters are tightly woven, and Waterman comes across quite well as the aging Cold Warrior not certain of his place in this new world of shifting loyalties. His scenes with his erstwhile enemies, and the grudging respect they accord one another, make for really good scenes. His careful devotion to his tradecraft is also impressive, even when it seems his opponents are always one step ahead of him. The other characters are intriguing, and the villain’s purpose is suitably believable. The pace isn’t what you’d exactly call riveting or breathtaking, but it isn’t leisurely either: you get the sense that the story unfolds exactly as it should, as Waterman goes about trying to find out what Howard was really up to in the methodical manner of a man whose job it is to sift through what seems real and find what is real. And, in stark contrast to Ludlum, there’s hardly an exclamation point in sight.

That said, there were also a couple of flaws in the book. One odd conceit that Weisman adopted was to periodically “black out” text, as if it had been redacted. But since the book wasn’t really written like a journal or other material that would have been “censored,” I found this rather out-of-place and incongruous. It would have been one thing, for example, if the book were written in first person or truly like a log of events rather than a straight-forward fictional narrative. But since it was the latter, the occasional insertion of something designed to look like a redactor’s black marker was actually counterproductive in my mind. Instead of making it seem more realistic, it was jarring and snapped me out of my “suspension of disbelief” mode. I sat there thinking, “Why is he doing that?” Hardly what you want a reader to be thinking, at least in my opinion.

The other flaw with the book was that I found the main villain was too easily identified early on: I kept wondering why Waterman was missing what seemed like obvious clues. He couldn’t see the forest for the trees, as it were, and yet I as the reader was thinking “It’s got to be person X” about halfway through the book. Either the clues needed to be more elusive, or there should have been diversionary characters to lure us away from the real culprit. While I liked the book overall, and found Weisman’s narrative style engaging, I really felt he could have offered more in the way of twists and turns, making us suspicious of the wrong suspects rather than cluing the reader in too early and allowing Waterman to seem confused for far too long.

Jack in the Box is a good novel, despite the flaws I noted (and I must admit, others might find Weisman’s blind alleys suitably diversionary from the real villain). It isn’t an action thriller, and Weisman prefers to allow his narrative to develop more in the manner of realistic spycraft, with painstaking accuracy punctuated by adrenaline-laced moments of conflict. It is a masterwork of “tradecraft” technique, a spy novel that delves into that secret world with such realism that you really believe you’re reading the genuine article.

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About Bill Wallo